Fast evolution made falcons the bird that soared above the rest

Scientists at Cardiff University have made a major breakthrough in understanding how the Peregrine and Saker falcons evolved to become ultimate predators.

A new paper published today revealing the genome sequences of these two iconic falcons has enabled scientists to learn what aspects of the birds’ genetic make-up have led to their unique adaptation to a predatory lifestyle.

The falcons’ sequences have shown that the birds underwent a rapid genome-wide evolutionary change. In comparison with other bird species, they indicate that the birds have been subject to fierce evolutionary competition and pressures, so have had to adapt quickly to become successful hunters. Falcons take extreme risks in order to survive, constantly living life on the edge.

Author of the paper, Professor Mike Bruford of the Cardiff School of Biosciences, explains:

“This is the first time birds of prey have had their genomes sequenced and the findings are truly revelatory, particularly in the evolution of Peregrine falcons – the fastest species in the animal kingdom. Our research shows that under strong selection pressures, Peregrines have had to adapt very rapidly to survive.

640px-Falco_peregrinus_-Nova_Scotia,_Canada_-eating-8“We have been able to determine that specific genes, regulating beak development have had to evolve to withstand the pressure of impacting their prey at a speed of up to 300km/h. The shape of the Falcon beak has also had had to evolve to be capable of tearing at the flesh of its prey.”

The genome sequences were obtained by scientists working at Cardiff’s School of Biosciences and the Beijing Genomics Institute in China. Much like the birds themselves, scientists describe their genomes as being ‘lean and mean’ in appearance.

Through analysis of the genomes, scientists were also able to determine that Peregrine and Saker falcons shared a common ancestor about 2.1million years ago and that they each have around 16,200 genes – about 5,000 less than a human.

The sequenced genomes allow scientists to identify the genetic basis of what makes the Falcons unique. This is important not only for increasing our understanding of the evolution and biology of these iconic species, but also for the management of their health and conservation.

The paper, entitled ‘Peregrine and saker falcon genome sequences provide insights into evolution of a predatory lifestyle’, is published today in the Nature Genetics journal.

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