Over the last few centuries, many cetacean species have witnessed dramatic global declines due to industrial overharvesting and other anthropogenic influences, and thus are key targets for conservation. Whale bones recovered from archaeological and palaeontological contexts can provide essential baseline information on the past geographical distribution and abundance of species required for developing informed conservation policies. Here we review the challenges with identifying whale bones through traditional anatomical methods, as well as the opportunities provided by new molecular analyses. Through a case study focused on the North Sea, we demonstrate how the utility of this (pre)historic data is currently limited by a lack of accurate taxonomic information for the majority of ancient cetacean remains. We then discuss current opportunities presented by molecular identification methods such as DNA barcoding and collagen peptide mass fingerprinting (zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry), and highlight the importance of molecular identifications in assessing ancient species’ distributions through a case study focused on the Mediterranean. We conclude by considering high-throughput molecular approaches such as hybridization capture followed by next-generation sequencing as cost-effective approaches for enhancing the ecological informativeness of these ancient sample sets.This article is part of the themed issue ‘From DNA barcodes to biomes’.
© 2016 The Authors.