NYUAD Researchers Unlock Keys to Falcons’ Evolutionary Success

The new findings point to how - and why - new species emerge and adapt to their environments

By studying the genomic architecture of several falcon species, a team of researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), led by Postdoctoral Associate and evolutionary biologist Justin Wilcox, have discovered a strong link between how a genome is structured and how a species evolves. The researchers’ newly-developed falcon genomes and findings of unique evolutionary patterns in falcons could make falcons a model for the study of the links between genomic evolution, speciation, and environmental adaption.

Falcons are an ideal model for studying the process of evolution as there is an ongoing emergence of new falcon species and extreme variation in environments and habitats that falcons occupy. Additionally, falcons have a unique genomic arrangement relative to other animals, including other birds. Falcons are incredibly important to MENA culture, commerce, and conservation; this study’s findings suggest that falcons may also have a special role to play in illuminating how and why genetic material is organized in the way that it is.

In a new paper titled Linked-Read Sequencing of Eight Falcons Reveals a Unique Genomic Architecture in Flux, Wilcox and colleagues present new genomes for eight falcons and analyze how the unique genomic structure of falcons has influenced their evolution. The researchers found that falcon genomes are now evolving in a way that is more similar to processes observed in mammals: specifically, they report falcons as the first birds that demonstrate an evolutionary process known as AT-GC disequilibrium, which is previously only well-documented in mammals.

Falcons are unique in the speed and success with which they have spread across the globe and colonized new environments. Our findings highlight that their evolution is also unique among birds at the molecular level. This research also leads the way for the future study of falcon genomes to improve ancestry tests and hybrid detection, genomic trait mapping, and determination of genomic differences between species.

Postdoctoral Associate Justin Wilcox

The team sequenced the genome of the lanner falcon for the first time in the species’ history, in addition to producing two new genomes for gyrfalcons, three new genomes for peregrine falcons – including the first-ever reference genomes for two peregrine subspecies – and a new genome for the saker falcon and the common kestrel. Together, these species represent all the falcon species most commonly used in falconry. The new genomes are publicly available on NCBI Genbank.