Oceanic dispersal has emerged as an important factor contributing to biogeographic patterns in numerous taxa. Chameleons are a clear example of this, as they are primarily found in Africa and Madagascar, but the age of the family is post-Gondwanan break-up. A Malagasy origin for the family has been suggested, yet this hypothesis has not been tested using modern biogeographic methods with a dated phylogeny. To examine competing hypotheses of African and Malagasy origins, we generated a dated phylogeny using between six and 13 genetic markers, for up to 174 taxa representing greater than 90 per cent of all named species. Using three different ancestral-state reconstruction methods (Bayesian and likelihood approaches), we show that the family most probably originated in Africa, with two separate oceanic dispersals to Madagascar during the Palaeocene and the Oligocene, when prevailing oceanic currents would have favoured eastward dispersal. Diversification of genus-level clades took place in the Eocene, and species-level diversification occurred primarily in the Oligocene. Plio-Pleistocene speciation is rare, resulting in a phylogeny dominated by palaeo-endemic species. We suggest that contraction and fragmentation of the Pan-African forest coupled to an increase in open habitats (savannah, grassland, heathland), since the Oligocene played a key role in diversification of this group through vicariance.
- Received January 25, 2013.
- Accepted March 6, 2013.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.