OPEN Genes | 19 Jul 2017
A Grealy, NJ Rawlence and M Bunce
Ancient DNA (aDNA) has the ability to inform the evolutionary history of both extant and extinct taxa; however, the use of aDNA in the study of avian evolution is lacking in comparison to other vertebrates, despite birds being one of the most species-rich vertebrate classes. Here, we review the field of “avian ancient DNA” by summarising the past three decades of literature on this topic. Most studies over this time have used avian aDNA to reconstruct phylogenetic relationships and clarify taxonomy based on the sequencing of a few mitochondrial loci, but recent studies are moving toward using a comparative genomics approach to address developmental and functional questions. Applying aDNA analysis with more practical outcomes in mind (such as managing conservation) is another increasingly popular trend among studies that utilise avian aDNA, but the majority of these have yet to influence management policy. We find that while there have been advances in extracting aDNA from a variety of avian substrates including eggshell, feathers, and coprolites, there is a bias in the temporal focus; the majority of the ca. 150 studies reviewed here obtained aDNA from late Holocene (100-1000 yBP) material, with few studies investigating Pleistocene-aged material. In addition, we identify and discuss several other issues within the field that require future attention. With more than one quarter of Holocene bird extinctions occurring in the last several hundred years, it is more important than ever to understand the mechanisms driving the evolution and extinction of bird species through the use of aDNA.
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