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Falcons (genus Falco) have fascinated humankind as symbols of strength and speed since the beginnings of recorded history. This bond between humans and falcons is embodied in the ancient art of falconry, which is now recognized by UNESCO as a profound “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” The symbolism of falcons and this heritage of falconry are an integral part of cultural and commercial life in the United Arab Emirates, where falconry remains a national sport of international renown and major economic interest.
Despite their importance and prestige, the large falcons that dominate falconry—peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) and hierofalcons (subgenus Hierofalco)—remain at the center of an evolutionary enigma: having only diverged and diversified within the last several hundred thousand years, these birds are now represented by approximately two-dozen distinctly recognized phenotypic and ecologically adapted lineages that have emerged against a backdrop of incomplete lineage sorting and in the absence of reproduction isolation. Humans have further contributed to this mudded evolutionary history through falcon husbandry practices, including intentional hybridization and the release or escape of captive-bred falcons, both as a by-product of falconry and as a conservation strategy in response to the decimation of some falcon populations by organochloride insecticides (particularly DDT).
While these complexities have hindered studies into the evolution of falcons in the past, recent breakthroughs in nucleic acid sequencing technology now make falcons exceptional candidates for genomic studies into the fundamental intricacies of ecological evolution and speciation at the interface of selection, geography, and human culture. However, efforts to popularize and make practical use of falcon genomic data are hampered by a lack of comprehensive research programs focusing on the development and implementation of falcon-specific genetic tools and markers.
Such resources would rapidly increase the ability to use genomic information in various basic and applied settings and hold the promise of: helping to make direct connections between falcon genomic variation and various normal and disease traits; resolving genetic affinities within and between wild and captive species; revealing falcon-specific evolutionary histories and novelties; and informing decisions in avian breeding and clinical programs. At NYUAD, we are setting up a scientific research program focusing on the development of such resources to enable a full range of investigations and applications in falcon genetic research, biology, forensics, breeding management, clinical settings, and conservation. This project is conducted in collaboration with local and international partners and collaborators working on falcons in the UAE.