Falcons developed their amazing hunting skills through ‘rapid’ evolution
A recent study has found that falcons rapidly evolved their well renowned hunting skills.
Scientists from Cardiff University have sequenced the genome of the peregrine and saker falcon for the first time ever in order to carry out research.
Their research revealed that, compared with other species, these birds of prey have adapted and evolved quickly due to being subjected to fierce competition and pressures.
During the investigation, they stated that the bird’s beaks highlighted this rapid development.
Professor Mike Bruford, who authored the paper published in the journal Nature Genetics, told the BBC: "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 300 kilometres an hour."
He also went on to state that the shape of the falcon beak has had to evolve to be capable of tearing the flesh of its prey.
The falcon’s hunting skills are extremely well known and the peregrine falcon is often referred to as the fastest animal on Earth. It can plummet at extremely high speeds in order to catch prey.
Researchers worked with experts at the Beijing Genomics Institute in China to obtain the genome sequences of the birds.
And, it was at this time that they managed to discover the “revelatory” evidence of the falcon’s evolutionary history when comparing their genomes with other birds. The other birds that they used included chickens, turkeys and zebra finches.
Through DNA sequencing, they were able to identify the genes behind the birds' exemplary predatory adaptations.
These adaptations include hard skulls which allow the falcons to survive collisions with prey and highly efficient circulatory and respiratory systems to cope with the extreme air pressure encountered during their high-speed dives.
Tracking when and how these genes developed, the scientists identified that the process was very rapid and theorised that this was due to intense competitive pressures experienced by the birds as they sought prey.
"Evolution seems to be pushing the genome sequence in an unusual direction," said Prof Bruford.
"If we had found this just in the peregrine, that would have been interesting, but we also sequenced the saker falcon and it shows the same pattern, leaving us with the most likely explanation that it is their predatory lifestyle [that is responsible]."
Saker falcons are found around Central Asia and the research team are now able to understand more about how they have developed to survive in such arid environments.
The birds are listed as endangered in the wild and conservationists from International Wildlife Consultants, Carmarthen, who co-funded the project hope an improved understanding of their history will help safeguard the species for the future.
Picture: Peter Heckert