Naturally shed hairs are an important source of genetic material for both conservation and forensics but are notoriously poor sources of DNA. DNA degradation in hair roots is caused by apoptosis as part of the cycle of hair growth and by autolysis in decomposing animals. Shed hairs are additionally exposed to degenerative environmental processes. However, genetic studies rarely examine hair root morphologies or refer to root growth phases prior to analysis, and detailed knowledge of the rapidity of DNA degradation amongst shed hairs is lacking. We examined the effects of biological and environmental processes on western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla Savage and Wyman) hair roots with respect to morphological characteristics and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) success at eight nuclear loci. Root type frequencies indicate that gorilla body hairs may exhibit a longer telogen phase than human head hairs. All plucked hair root types amplified more efficiently than shed hairs, and only 41% of shed hairs had root types considered suitable for genotyping. Telogen hairs from fresh nests were four-fold more useful for genotyping if the roots were associated with translucent epithelial tissue, and preselection of these root types doubled the overall data-yield to 58%. Nest age correlated with root morphology and PCR success, and PCR success was almost halved after 3 days of exposure. Finally, an association between postmortem interval, root morphology, and PCR success was observed that was consistent with postmortem changes reported in human head hairs. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 91, 281–294.