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Evolution and biogeography of primates: a new model based on molecular phylogenetics, vicariance and plate tectonics


  • Michael Heads

Michael Heads, Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt Parkway, Buffalo, NY 14211-1293, USA. E-mail:


Heads, M. Evolution and biogeography of primates: a new model based on molecular phylogenetics, vicariance and plate tectonics. —Zoologica Scripta, 39, 107–127.

The ages of the oldest fossils suggest an origin for primates in the Paleocene (∼56 Ma). Fossil-calibrated molecular clock dates give Cretaceous dates (∼80–116 Ma). Both these estimates are minimum dates although they are often ‘transmogrified’ and treated as maximum or absolute dates. Oldest fossils can underestimate ages by tens of millions of years and instead of calibrating the time-course of evolution with a scanty fossil record, the geographical boundaries of the main molecular clades of primates are calibrated here with radiometrically dated tectonic events. This indicates that primates originated when a globally widespread ancestor (early Archonta) differentiated into a northern group (Plesiadapiformes, extinct), a southern group (Primates), and two south-east Asian groups (Dermoptera and Scandentia). The division occurred with the breakup of Pangea in the Early Jurassic and the opening of the central Atlantic (∼185 Ma). Within primates, the strepsirrhines and haplorhines diverged with volcanism and buckling on the Lebombo Monocline, a volcanic rifted margin in south-east Africa (Early Jurassic, ∼180 Ma). Within strepsirrhines, lorises and galagos (Africa and Asia) and lemurs (Madagascar) diverged with the formation of the Mozambique Channel (Middle Jurassic, ∼160 Ma). Within haplorhines, Old World monkeys and New World monkeys diverged with the opening of the Atlantic (Early Cretaceous, ∼130 Ma). The main aspects of primate distribution are interpreted as the result of plate tectonics, phylogeny and vicariance, with some subsequent range expansion leading to secondary overlap. Long-distance, trans-oceanic dispersal events are not necessary. The primate ancestral complex was already widespread globally when sea-floor spreading, strike-slip rifting and orogeny fractured and deformed distributions through the Jurassic and Cretaceous, leading to the origin of the modern clades. The model suggests that the topology of the phylogenetic tree reflects a sequence of differentiation in a widespread ancestor rather than a series of dispersal events.