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Keywords:

  • chromosome evolution;
  • horses;
  • mitochondrial genes;
  • nuclear genes;
  • rhinoceroses;
  • species tree;
  • tapirs

The evolution of perissodactyls (rhinoceroses, tapirs, and horses) has been well studied primarily because of their extensive fossil record. Nevertheless, controversy persists regarding relationships of some of the extant taxa, reflecting inconsistencies between molecular and morphological studies. Here we examine the phylogenetic relationships of 16 living perissodactyl species by concatenating two mitochondrial and nine nuclear genes, and we estimate their divergence times using a relaxed Bayesian molecular clock approach. Our analyses recovered the monophyly of the suborders Ceratomorpha and Hippomorpha, and the families Rhinoceratidae, Tapiridae, and Equidae. We supported the early divergence of the Indian rhinoceros in the late Oligocene (26 Mya) relative to the Sumatran and African rhinoceroses, and the split of caballine (domestic horse and Przewalski's wild horse) and noncaballine equids (zebras and African and Asiatic asses) in the Pliocene (4 Mya). An important implication of this study is that Equus asinus, the African wild ass was found to be the sister taxon of Asiatic asses and zebras, diverging from the common ancestor with caballine horses 2 Mya. Rates of chromosome rearrangements were also evaluated in perissodactyls, placing a notably high rate of variation amongst equids, particularly within the zebra clade. The robust phylogenetic results presented here are relevant in terms of understanding the evolutionary history of this highly threatened group of mammals.

© 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 163, 1289–1303.