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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A new estimate of afrotherian phylogeny based on simultaneous analysis of genomic, morphological, and fossil evidence

Erik R Seiffert

Author Affiliations

Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, 11794-8081, USA

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:224  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-224

Published: 13 November 2007

Abstract

Background

The placental mammalian clade Afrotheria is now supported by diverse forms of genomic data, but interordinal relationships within, and morphological support for, the group remains elusive. As a means for addressing these outstanding problems, competing hypotheses of afrotherian interordinal relationships were tested through simultaneous parsimony analysis of a large data set (> 4,590 parsimony informative characters) containing genomic data (> 17 kb of nucleotide data, chromosomal associations, and retroposons) and 400 morphological characters scored across 16 extant and 35 extinct afrotherians.

Results

Parsimony analysis of extant taxa alone recovered the interordinal topology (Afrosoricida, ((Macroscelidea, Tubulidentata), (Hyracoidea, (Proboscidea, Sirenia)))). Analysis following addition of extinct taxa instead supported Afroinsectivora (Afrosoricida + Macroscelidea) and Pseudoungulata (Tubulidentata + Paenungulata), as well as Tethytheria (Proboscidea + Sirenia). This latter topology is, however, sensitive to taxon deletion and different placements of the placental root, and numerous alternative interordinal arrangements within Afrotheria could not be statistically rejected. Relationships among extinct stem members of each afrotherian clade were more stable, but one alleged stem macroscelidean (Herodotius) never grouped with that clade and instead consistently joined pseudoungulates or paenungulates. When character transformations were optimized onto a less resolved afrotherian tree that reflects uncertainty about the group's interordinal phylogeny, a total of 21 morphological features were identified as possible synapomorphies of crown Afrotheria, 9 of which optimized unambiguously across all character treatments and optimization methods.

Conclusion

Instability in afrotherian interordinal phylogeny presumably reflects rapid divergences during two pulses of cladogenesis – the first in the Late Cretaceous, at and just after the origin of crown Afrotheria, and the second in the early Cenozoic, with the origin of crown Paenungulata. Morphological evidence for divergences during these two pulses either never existed or has largely been "erased" by subsequent evolution along long ordinal branches. There may, nevertheless, be more morphological character support for crown Afrotheria than is currently assumed; the features identified here as possible afrotherian synapomorphies can be further scrutinized through future phylogenetic analyses with broader taxon sampling, as well as recovery of primitive fossil afrotherians from the Afro-Arabian landmass, where the group is likely to have first diversified.