Subsistence practices, past biodiversity, and anthropogenic impacts revealed by New Zealand-wide ancient DNA survey

Frederik V. Seersholm*, Theresa L. Cole, Alicia Grealy, Nicolas J. Rawlence, Karen Greig, Michael Knapp, Michael Stat, Anders J. Hansen, Luke J. Easton, Lara Shepherd, Alan J. D. Tennyson, R. Paul Scofield, Richard Walter, Michael Bunce

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    59 Citations (Scopus)
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    New Zealand’s geographic isolation, lack of native terrestrial mammals, and Gondwanan origins make it an ideal location to study evolutionary processes. However, since the archipelago was first settled by humans 750 y ago, its unique biodiversity has been under pressure, and today an estimated 49% of the terrestrial avifauna is extinct. Current efforts to conserve the remaining fauna rely on a better understanding of the composition of past ecosystems, as well as the causes and timing of past extinctions. The exact temporal and spatial dynamics of New Zealand’s extinct fauna, however, can be difficult to interpret, as only a small proportion of animals are preserved as morphologically identifiable fossils. Here, we conduct a large-scale genetic survey of subfossil bone assemblages to elucidate the impact of humans on the environment in New Zealand. By genetically identifying more than 5,000 nondiagnostic bone fragments from archaeological and paleontological sites, we reconstruct a rich faunal record of 110 species of birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and marine mammals. We report evidence of five whale species rarely reported from New Zealand archaeological middens and characterize extinct lineages of leiopelmatid frog (Leiopelma sp.) and kak ap ō (Strigops habroptilus) haplotypes lost from the gene pool. Taken together, this molecular audit of New Zealand’s subfossil record not only contributes to our understanding of past biodiversity and precontact Maori subsistence practices but also provides a more nuanced snapshot of anthropogenic impacts on native fauna after first human arrival.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)7771-7776
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number30
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Jul 2018

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2018. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • paleoecology
    • human impacts
    • subsistence practices
    • bulk bone metabarcoding
    • ancient DNA


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