Michelle Vrettos

Michelle completed a BA degree in Classical Studies and Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in 2014, before realising that her true passion lay in the biological sciences. She completed her BSc, majoring in Ecology and Evolution and Genetics, at UCT in 2018, and undertook an Honours degree through the FitzPatrick Institute in 2019. Her Honours project, supervised by A/Prof. Arjun Amar, involved evaluating the popular hypothesis that the malar stripe in Peregrine Falcons functions to reduce the impact of solar glare on vision while hunting, by testing whether falcons with larger or darker stripes are found in brighter habitats. Her project found a positive association between solar radiation and malar stripe size and prominence in Peregrine Falcons, thus providing the first empirical support for this hypothesis.

Michelle’s Masters project, which she is currently undertaking through the FitzPatrick Institute under the supervision of A/Prof. Amar and hopes to complete in 2021, involves extending this analysis to other species in the genus Falco, thereby testing the hypothesis that the malar stripe in falcons evolved as an adaptation to improve visual performance in bright conditions. Her research involves working in conjunction with UCT’s Department of Computer Science, under the co-supervision of A/Prof. Patrick Marais, to develop 3D computer modelling software that will allow quantitative visual modelling of falcon heads, thereby providing a method for reliably and quantitatively estimating the size and shape of dark facial markings in individual falcons based on photographs.

Thesis: A phylogenetically-controlled test of the function of malar markings in falcons using deep 3D modelling. Supervisors: Arjun Amar, Patrick Marais and Chevonne Reynolds (Wits).


Vrettos, M., Reynolds, C., Amar, A. 2021 Malar stripe size and prominence in peregrine falcons vary positively with solar radiation: support for the solar glare hypothesis. Biology Letters 17. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2021.0116