ABU DHABI // A two-year study to sequence the genomes of Peregrine and Saker falcons will provide vital information for their future conservation.
The chicken and the zebra finch are the only other birds for which genome sequences have been obtained to date.
The project will investigate the hereditary make-up of the birds, which will enable biologists to research specific genes, provide insights into the evolution of the species and increase the understanding of their biology and hereditary diseases.
“They are the national birds for the United Arab Emirates, so this project has a very important meaning for Abu Dhabi, for the UAE, and also on an international level as an endangered species,” said Dr Margit Muller, the director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH), a supporter of the programme.
The project, which started in November, is under the auspices of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD). The International Wildlife Consultants in the UK are also involved, headed by two professors from the University of Cardiff, Mike Bruford and Xiangjiang Zhan.
“This project provides a unique opportunity to analyse and compare the genomes of two closely related and widely distributed birds of prey,” Prof Bruford said.
“Not only will it allow us to understand the genomic evolution of birds over a short evolutionary timescale but it will also enable us to investigate the genetic adaptation of these species to their different environments and provide vital information for their conservation in the future.”
Birds have 23,000 genes responsible for their physical and behavioural characteristics, and have a smaller genome than humans.
Blood samples have been collected from male specimens of Peregrine and Saker falcons by ADFH and their DNA will be sequenced at the Beijing Genetics Institute in Shenzen, China – the centre that recently produced genomes for the giant panda and the camel.
“The genome project is us taking a major step in a more strategic approach for research and conservation management,” said Mohammed Ahmad al Bowardi, the managing director of EAD.
“The importance of both the Saker and the Peregrine for traditional Arabic falconry has meant that Abu Dhabi has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for these species in Eurasia.”
“The genome makes up the building blocks of a species,” said Dr Nick Fox, the director of International Wildlife Consultants. “From the genome results we can start to clarify which falcons are distinct species and how regional populations relate to one another.
“At last we will know exactly what it is that we are trying to conserve.”