Molecular couplings between DNA and water together with the accompanying processes of energy exchange are mapped via the ultrafast response of DNA backbone vibrations after OH stretch excitation of the water shell. Native salmon testes DNA is studied in femtosecond pump-probe experiments under conditions of full hydration and at a reduced hydration level with two water layers around the double helix. Independent of their local hydration patterns, all backbone vibrations in the frequency range from 940 to 1120 cm-1 display a quasi-instantaneous reshaping of the spectral envelopes of their fundamental absorption bands upon excitation of the water shell. The subsequent reshaping kinetics encompass a one-picosecond component, reflecting the formation of a hot ground state of the water shell, and a slower contribution on a time scale of tens of picoseconds. Such results are benchmarked by measurements with resonant excitation of the backbone modes, resulting in distinctly different absorption changes. We assign the fast changes of DNA absorption after OH stretch excitation to structural changes in the water shell which couple to DNA through the local electric fields. The second slower process is attributed to a flow of excess energy from the water shell into DNA, establishing a common heated ground state in the molecular ensemble. This interpretation is supported by theoretical calculations of the electric fields exerted by the water shell at different temperatures. © 2017 Author(s).