The snake superfamily Elapoidea presents one of the most intransigent problems in systematics of the Caenophidia. Its monophyly is undisputed and several cohesive constituent lineages have been identified (including the diverse and clinically important family Elapidae), but its basal phylogenetic structure is obscure. We investigate phylogenetic relationships and spatial and temporal history of the Elapoidea using 94 caenophidian species and approximately 2300–4300 bases of DNA sequence from one nuclear and four mitochondrial genes. Phylogenetic reconstruction was conducted in a parametric framework using complex models of sequence evolution. We employed Bayesian relaxed clocks and Penalized Likelihood with rate smoothing to date the phylogeny, in conjunction with seven fossil calibration constraints. Elapoid biogeography was investigated using maximum likelihood and maximum parsimony methods. Resolution was poor for early relationships in the Elapoidea and in Elapidae and our results imply rapid basal diversification in both clades, in the late Eocene of Africa (Elapoidea) and the mid-Oligocene of the Oriental region (Elapidae). We identify the major elapoid and elapid lineages, present a phylogenetic classification system for the superfamily (excluding Elapidae), and combine our phylogenetic, temporal and biogeographic results to provide an account of elapoid evolution in light of current palaeontological data and palaeogeographic models.
© The Willi Hennig Society 2009.