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A phylogenetic review of the African leaf chameleons: genus Rhampholeon (Chamaeleonidae): the role of vicariance and climate change in speciation

Conrad A. Matthee, Colin R. Tilbury, Ted Townsend


The phylogenetic associations among 13 currently recognized African leaf chameleon species were investigated by making use of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequence data (44 taxa and 4145 characters). The gene tree indicates two divergent clades within Rhampholeon; this finding is congruent with previous morphological suggestions. The first clade (I) comprises three taxa (R. kerstenii, R. brevicaudatus and R. brachyurus) and is widely distributed in lowland forest and or non–forest biomes. The second clade (II) comprises the remaining Rhampholeon species and can be subdivided into three subclades. By contrast, most taxa belonging to clade II are confined to relict montane forest biotopes. Based on geographical, morphological and molecular evidence, it is suggested that the taxonomy of Rhampholeon be revised to include two genera (Rieppeleon and Rhampholeon) and three subgenera (Rhampholeon, Bicuspis and Rhinodigitum). There is a close correlation between geographical distribution and phylogenetic relatedness among Rhampholeon taxa, indicating that vicariance and climate change were possibly the most influential factors driving speciation in the group. A relaxed Bayesian clock suggests that speciation times coincided both with the northern movement of Africa, which caused the constriction of the pan African forest, and to rifting in east Africa ca. 20 Myr ago. Subsequent speciation among taxa was probably the result of gradual desiccation of forests between 20 and 5 Myr ago.

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