Falcons and mtDNA Mutation Rates

Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson in his excellent book Replacing Darwin made a testable prediction. He put forward several testable predictions, one of which was an equation. The equation was Dr. Jeanson’s attempt to predict the rate of mutation for invertebrates according to the Biblical timeline. The equation was as follows: the number of mtDNA mutations divided by 6000 years, divided by two.  While Dr. Jeanson used this equation specifically for invertebrates, and postulated mtDNA mutation rates may be linked to changes in heterozygousity in the nuclear genome, there is no definitive proof of such as yet Therefore, we decided to test it in genus Falco.

The Falco are the falcons. Graceful flying birds of prey, they are also some of the fastest animals in the world. The peregrine falcon can reach speeds of nearly 240 miles per hour in a dive. This speed and hunting ability makes falcons excellent predators, able to surprise their prey from above.  There are nearly forty species in the genus, along with several subspecies.

Fortunately, numerous curated sequences of mtDNA are available within the genus Falco including that of the best-known member of the genus, the peregrine falcon. Six such sequences were downloaded from the NCBI nucleotide BLAST database and aligned using MEGAx. After alignment, the sequences were color-coded for one hundred percent conservation. This ensured that any place where the six sequences differed, there would be a colorful demarcation in the alignment. These differences were then hand-counted for a total of 3618 single nucleotide variants. Since not all the mtDNA sequences are of equal length, gaps were not counted as single nucleotide variants. This is because it is presumed that gaps in the alignment are the result of genetic entropy degrading the mtDNA genome over time.

Dr. Jeanson’s equation was then run.

#of SNV= 3618m/6000y=.603m/y

0.603m/y / 2=0.3015m/y

Into English, this number of single nucleotide variants results in a mutation rate of roughly a third of a mutation per year for a six thousand year time scale in the mtDNA genome.  This is not an unreasonable rate. When Dr. Jeanson determined the mtDNA rate in humans, it was .15 mutations per mtDNA genome per generation. While the Falcon rate is faster than that, one mutation every three years creeping into the population is not a terrible rate.

There are a couple of potential issues with the data just presented (I suspect an expert geneticist could probably find more).  Because I had to hand-count the mutations, it is possible that my count is off. If it is off, I doubt it would be by enough to strongly effect the rate but I would obviously prefer to make a completely accurate assessment of the data. However, I see no way around this as I was unable to find a setting in MEGA that allowed me to count the single nucleotide variants automatically.  I am, however, self-taught on the application so if someone knows of a way, please point it out.

The second issue is not accounting for gaps. In this instance, I think genetic entropy is a viable explanation. We know that the genome is breaking down. This includes the mtDNA genome. Therefore it is no stretch to think that chunks of the mtDNA could not have been lost over time due to copying errors or deletions in replication.  Were the gaps to be added, it could artificially inflate the rate of actual variation within the genome. Therefore I have elected to leave them out.

The third issue is sample size. There are a lot more falcons than were included in my analysis. This could alter the rate, likely lowering it slightly.  Unfortunately, only a few Falco members have publicly available high-quality mtDNA sequences. At the end of the article, I include the accession numbers of the mtDNA sequences I used so anyone motivated may go back and repeat my work. Have fun counting SNVs by hand.

While I would like to compare my derived mtDNA mutation rate to a published rate, I have been unable to locate one through Google scholar.  Not that many mtDNA mutation rates have been measured, outside of humans. However, assuming my derived rate is close to accurate, we can derive how many mutations evolutionists would expect for Falco given their origination.  By using the rate of mtDNA mutation derived, multiplied by the time evolutionists propose Falcons have existed, divided by two, we can get a rough number.

0.3015m/y x 10 mya= 3,015,000 mutations

3,015,000m/2= 1,507,000 mutations total. (For reference, the largest Falco mtDNA genome used was under 19,000 base pairs.)

This many mutations are orders of magnitude greater than what we observe. When I first read Replacing Darwin I noticed this problem and wrote an article called The Missing Mutations.  In it, I pointed out that evolution would predict many more genetic mutations than we observe. This means that the origin of diversity must have been recent, not in the distant past. What we see here in the Falco genus confirms that. Mutation rates of mtDNA support a Biblical timescale and allow creationists to make testable scientific predictions like the one made above. I look forward to seeing a published mtDNA mutation rate in Falco so I can compare it to what I’ve derived in this rather primitive exercise. I rather suspect that my derived rate is at least slightly high, but I await mainstream science publishing a rate regardless.

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Accession numbers used: NC_029359, NC_000878, NC_011307, NC_025579, NC_008547, and NC_039842


  1. Hi, I saw your question regarding MEGA, if you go to main menu and then choose “Distance” you can “compute pairwise distance” for your alignment. It will produce a data matrix showing the number of differences for each pair of sequences. You can choose to exclude gaps or treat them as characters if various ways.


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