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Keywords:

  • African mole-rats;
  • Bathyergidae;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • phylogeography;
  • Rift Valley;
  • taxonomy

Abstract

African mole-rats are subterranean Hystricomorph rodents, distributed widely throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and displaying a range of social and reproductive strategies from solitary dwelling to the ‘insect-like’ sociality of the naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber. Both molecular systematic studies of Rodentia and the fossil record of bathyergids indicate an ancient origin for the family. This study uses an extensive molecular phylogeny and mitochondrial cytochrome b and 12s rRNA molecular clocks to examine in detail the divergence times, and patterns of speciation of the five extant genera in the context of rift valley formation in Africa. Based on a value of 40–48 million years ago (Myr) for the basal divergence of the family (Heterocephalus), we estimate divergence times of 32–40 Myr for Heliophobius, 20–26 Myr for Georychus/Bathyergus and 12–17 Myr for Cryptomys, the most speciose genus. While early divergences may have been independent of rifting, patterns of distribution of later lineages may have been influenced directly by physical barriers imposed by the formation of the Kenya and Western Rift, and indirectly by accompanying climatic and vegetative changes. Rates of chromosomal evolution and speciation appear to vary markedly within the family. In particular, the genus Cryptomys appears to have undergone an extensive radiation and shows the widest geographical distribution. Of the two distinct clades within this genus, one exhibits considerable karyotypic variation while the other does not, despite comparatively high levels of sequence divergence between some taxa. These different patterns of speciation observed both within the family and within the genus Cryptomys may have been a result of environmental changes associated with rifting.