Researchers Publish Saker And Peregrine Falcon Genome Sequences
March 25, 2013

Peregrine And Saker Falcon Genome Sequences Published

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Researchers from several institutions have published the genome sequences of the peregrine and saker falcons, opening up a flood of data about the evolution of the predatory birds.

Peregrine and saker falcons are a unique bird species with superb skills at hunting, but recently they have been listed as endangered due to rapid population declines caused by a wide range of factors.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the animal kingdom, reaching speeds of over 200 miles-per-hour. This falcon species feeds almost exclusively on medium-sized birds, swooping in from great heights to catch its prey. However, peregrine, as well as saker, falcons have their own predators to worry about, including humans over harvesting for falconry, habitat loss and bioaccumulation of pesticides.

Researchers from Cardiff University, BGI, International Wildlife Consultants, Ltd., and Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital wanted to get to know the evolutionary basis of predatory adaptations underlying these threatened species. They conducted whole genome sequencing on the falcons and assembled the highest quality reference genomes for each species.

According to the results published online in Nature Genetics, the two falcon species might have diverged 2.1 million years ago. They found, when comparing the genomes with chickens and the zebra finch, the element composition of falcons was most similar to that of the zebra finch.

They also found a gene expansion in the olfactory receptor y-c clade in chickens and zebra finches is not found in falcons, which could be due to their reliance on vision for locating prey. The researchers said the nervous system, olfaction and sodium ion trans-port has evolved rapidly in falcons.

"The two falcon genomes are the first predatory bird genome published. The data presented in this study will advance our understanding of the adaptive evolution of raptors as well as aid the conservation of endangered falcon species," Shenkai Pan, bioinformatics expert from BGI, said.

The scientists believe the falcon genes developed very rapidly because of intense competition pressures experienced by birds as they sought prey.

The group completed the genomes back in 2011, but this is the first time they have been published. Scientists around the world now have the opportunity to better study the basic biology and genetics of falcons to provide new insights into the evolution of the species.

“This study will open the door to an unparalleled understanding of falcon biology and help us to manage and conserve wild falcon stocks in the future” said Dr. Andrew Dixon, Head of Research at International Wildlife Consultants Ltd (IWC).

Dr. Ning Li, CEO of BGI Europe, said when the genomes were first completed in 2011, they wanted to make more breakthroughs in the project to help researchers better protect these birds.

"The complete genome sequencing of the two falcons will lay a solid scientific foundation for identifying the origin and populations of falcons and accelerating the selective breeding of high-quality varieties," Li said.