Centuries of zoological studies have amassed billions of specimens in collections worldwide. Genomics of these specimens promises to reinvigorate biodiversity research. However, because DNA degrades with age in historical specimens, it is a challenge to obtain genomic data for them and analyze degraded genomes. We developed experimental and computational protocols to overcome these challenges and applied our methods to resolve a series of long-standing controversies involving a group of butterflies. We deduced the geographical origins of several historical specimens of uncertain provenance that are at the heart of these debates. Here, genomics tackles one of the greatest problems in zoology: countless old specimens that serve as irreplaceable embodiments of species concepts cannot be confidently assigned to extant species or population due to the lack of diagnostic morphological features and clear documentation of the collection locality. The ability to determine where they were collected will resolve many on-going disputes. More broadly, we show the utility of applying genomics to historical museum specimens to delineate the boundaries of species and populations, and to hypothesize about genotypic determinants of phenotypic traits.

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