• Ancestral range;
  • divergence times;
  • nonmonophyly of the Characiformes;
  • phylogeny;
  • postdrift dispersal;
  • vicariance

The biogeography of the mega-diverse, freshwater, and globally distributed Otophysi has received considerable attention. This attraction largely stems from assumptions as to their ancient origin, the clade being almost exclusively freshwater, and their suitability as to explanations of trans-oceanic distributions. Despite multiple hypotheses explaining present-day distributions, problems remain, precluding more parsimonious explanations. Underlying previous hypotheses are alternative phylogenies for Otophysi, uncertainties as to temporal diversification and assumptions integral to various explanations. We reexamine the origin and early diversification of this clade based on a comprehensive time-calibrated, molecular-based phylogenetic analysis and event-based approaches for ancestral range inference of lineages. Our results do not corroborate current phylogenetic classifications of otophysans. We demonstrate Siluriformes are never sister to Gymnotiformes and Characiformes are most likely nonmonophyletic. Divergence time estimates specify a split between Cypriniformes and Characiphysi with the fragmentation of Pangea. The early diversification of characiphysans either predated, or was contemporary with, the separation of Africa and South America, and involved a combination of within- and between-continental divergence events for these lineages. The intercontinental diversification of siluroids and characoids postdated major intercontinental tectonic fragmentations (<90 Mya). Post-tectonic drift dispersal events are hypothesized to account for their current distribution patterns.