Ancient bison bones discovered at a Canadian goldmine are helping unravel the mystery about how animals adapt to rapid environmental change, a study reveals.

The 30,000-year-old bones were unearthed by University of Adelaide researchers, which helped them analyse special genetic modifications (epigenetic changes) that turn genes on and off without altering the DNA sequence itself.

Epigenetic changes can occur rapidly between generations, even without going through standard evolutionary processes. Such epigenetic modifications (the effect of environment on genes) could explain how animal species are able to respond to rapid climate change.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute researchers, collaborating with University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) have shown that it is possible to accurately measure epigenetic modifications in extinct animals and populations, the journal PLoS ONE reported.

They measured epigenetic modifications in 30,000-year-old permafrost bones from the Yukon region in Canada, and compared them to those in modern-day cattle, and a 30-year-old mummified cow from New Zealand, a university statement said. This is the first step towards testing the idea that epigenetics has driven evolution in natural populations.