Abu Dhabi EAD initiative: Major scientific project gives impetus to falcon conservation efforts

Falcons adapt quickly to be successful hunters

ABU DHABI - The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) initiative has resulted in a major scientific advance that will greatly assist in the conservation of falcons across the region and the world.
The project, which commenced in 2011 and has been conducted by scientists from Cardiff University in the UK and Beijing Genetics Research Institute in China, sought to decode the entire genetic make-up of the Peregrine and Sakerfalcons. Now, the project has unveiled comprehensive data on the entire genome sequences of the falcons and results have been published by the prestigious international science journal Nature Genetics.
Falcons are a key element of Arab cultural heritage and two species in particular, the Saker -categorised as Endangered in the IUCN Global Red List of Endangered Species- and the Peregrinewere traditionally used by Bedouin falconers and are still greatly prized by falconers across the region today.
The two particular falcons that had their entire DNA mapped and recorded were both patients at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital – which was established by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi in 1999 and is nowthe largest falcon hospital in the world.
Veterinariansat the hospital collected samples of their blood and sent them to alaboratory in the UK so that the DNA could be extracted and eventually sequencedat the Beijing Genetics Research Institute.
The two falcons are the first raptors and only the 7th and 8th bird species to have the genome sequences published (the others are Chicken, Turkey, Zebra Finch, two Pied Flycatchers and Rock Pigeon).
Through analysis of the genomes,the project scientists were able to determine that the two falcon species shared a common ancestor over2 million years ago and that they each have around 16,200 genes. In comparison to other bird species,whose genomes have beensequenced, the falcon genomes showed evidence of rapid evolutionary change, indicating strong selection pressures for their predatory lifestyle - they have to adapt quickly to be successful hunters.
As an example of this specialist adaptation, the scientists examined the genes involved in controlling the size and shape of the falcon beak. The scientists were able to determine that specific genes regulating the size and shape of the falcon beak have evolved rapidly under strong selection pressures.
The sequenced genomes allow scientists to identify the genetic basis of what makes the falcons unique.

What makes falcons unique?

H.E Mohammed Al Bowardi, EAD’s Managing Director, said: “This latest research is important not only to increaseour understanding of the evolution and biology of Saker and Peregrine Falcons, but also to better manage their health and their conservation. EADis proud to support this cutting-edge scienceof ‘conservation genomics’ and will be extending its research programme with Cardiff University and BGI-Shenzhen to apply the new knowledge gained from the genome sequences to falcon conservation in a practical way.”
H.E added “By combining genomic information and satellite tracking data of Peregrine Falcon migration, we can obtain vital information to benefit the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release programme, by identifying where each falcon originates they can be released in the right area at the right time to give them the best chance of survival”.
With this type of genomic information, conservationists canaccurately quantify the level of genetic biodiversity remaining in fragmented populations of falcons and identify specific population ‘units’ that deserve special attention. This information enables conservation efforts and reintroductions to be targeted appropriately and effectively.
Thanks to the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, 1,363 falcons have successfully been released back into the wild since the programme began in 1995. The long-term programmehelps EAD better understands if migratory birds such as the Peregrines and Saker Falcons can maintain the same migratory route after they have been used for Falconry. It also helped the Agency to understand if Falconry birds can be readapted to the wild, and how best to select and prepare them to ensure the greatest success rates.