The mutualistic symbiosis between fungus-growing termites and Termitomyces fungi originated in Africa and shows a moderate degree of interaction specificity. Here we estimate the age of the mutualism and test the hypothesis that the major splits have occurred simultaneously in the host and in the symbiont. We present a scenario where fungus-growing termites originated in the African rainforest just before the expansion of the savanna, about 31 Ma (19–49 Ma). Whereas rough age correspondence is observed for the four main clades of host and symbiont, the analysis reveals several recent events of host switching followed by dispersal of the symbiont throughout large areas and throughout different host genera. The most spectacular of these is a group of closely related fungi (the maximum age of which is estimated to be 2.4 Ma), shared between the divergent genera Microtermes, Ancistrotermes, Acanthotermes and Synacanthotermes (which diverged at least 16.7 Ma), and found throughout the African continent and on Madagascar. The lack of geographical differentiation of fungal symbionts shows that continuous exchange has occurred between regions and across host species.
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