• Bayesian inference;
  • Elapidae;
  • molecular divergence dating;
  • rapid radiation;
  • snakes


One of the most prolific radiations of venomous snakes, the Australo-Melanesian Hydrophiinae includes ∼100 species of Australasian terrestrial elapids plus all ∼60 species of viviparous sea snakes. Here, we estimate hydrophiine relationships based on a large data set comprising 5800 bp drawn from seven genes (mitochondrial: ND4, cytb, 12S, 16S; nuclear: rag1, cmos, myh). These data were analysed using parsimony, likelihood and Bayesian methods to better resolve hydrophiine phylogeny and provide a timescale for the terrestrial and marine radiations. Among oviparous forms, Cacophis, Furina and Demansia are basal to other Australian elapids (core oxyuranines). The Melanesian Toxicocalamus and Aspidomorphus group with Demansia, indicating multiple dispersal events between New Guinea and Australia. Oxyuranus and Pseudonaja form a robust clade. The small burrowing taxa form two separate clades, one consisting of Vermicella and Neelaps calanotus, and the other including Simoselaps, Brachyurophis and Neelaps bimaculatus. The viviparous terrestrial elapids form three separate groups: Acanthophis, the Rhinoplocephalus group and the Notechis–Hemiaspis group. True sea snakes (Hydrophiini) are robustly united with the Notechis–Hemiaspis group. Many of the retrieved groupings are consistent with previous molecular and morphological analyses, but the polyphyly of the viviparous and burrowing groups, and of Neelaps, are novel results. Bayesian relaxed clock analyses indicate very recent divergences: the ∼160 species of the core Australian radiation (including sea snakes) arose within the last 10 Myr, with most inter-generic splits dating to between 10 and 6 Ma. The Hydrophis sea snake lineage is an exceptionally rapid radiation, with > 40 species evolving within the last 5 Myr.