• complex life cycles;
  • fossil aphids;
  • fundatrix specialization;
  • host alternation;
  • host shifts;
  • mitochondrial ribosomal DNA

Many aphids display a remarkably complex life cycle of host alternation, in which cyclical parthenogenesis is combined with the obligate use of two unrelated host plants. We used mitochondrial ribosomal DNA (partial 12S and 16S) sequences to reconstruct the phylogeny of aphids, to determine how many origins of host alternation and correlated major host-plant shifts have occurred. Our results agreed with previous morphological studies in that species clustered with good support at the level of tribes. There was little well-supported phylogenetic structure at levels deeper than tribes, however, except for the monophyly of two subfamilies, Aphidinae and Lachninae. We argue that aphids experienced a rapid radiation at the tribal level, after host shifting from gymnosperms to angiosperms. A rapid radiation is consistent with aphid fossils, which record the presence of few subfamilies in the late Cretaceous, but most extant tribes by the early Tertiary. Plant fossils also record host plants of aphid tribes diversifying during this time. A hypothesized mechanism by which host alternation has evolved (fundatrix specialization), coupled with the rapid radiation, implies that this life cycle may have originated as often as in the ancestor of each tribe that displays it. We also consider, however, an alternative hypothesis of fewer origins. The basal radiation of Aphididae was dated from molecular sequences to have occurred at approximately 80–150 Mya.