Around the world in 10 million years: biogeography of the nearly cosmopolitan true toads (Anura: Bufonidae)


*Correspondence: Jennifer Pramuk, Curator of Herpetology, Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY 10460, USA.


Aim  The species-rich family of true toads (Anura: Bufonidae) has been the focus of several earlier studies investigating the biogeography of geographically widespread taxa. Herein, we employ newly developed Bayesian divergence estimate methods to investigate the biogeographical history of this group. Resulting age estimates are used to test several key temporal hypotheses including that the origin of the bufonid clade pre-dates Gondwanan vicariance (~105 million years ago, Ma). Area cladograms are also invoked to investigate the geographical origin of the family.

Location  Worldwide, except the Australia–New Guinea plate, Madagascar and the Antarctic.

Methods  A phylogenetic hypothesis of the relationships among true toads was derived from analysis of 2521 bp of DNA data including fragments from three mitochondrial (12S, tRNAval, 16S) and two nuclear (RAG-1, CXCR-4) genes. Analysis of multiple, unlinked loci with a Bayesian method for estimating divergence times allowed us to address the timing and biogeographical history of Bufonidae. Resulting divergence estimates permitted the investigation of alternative vicariance/dispersal scenarios that have been proposed for true toads.

Results  Our area cladogram resulting from phylogenetic analysis of DNA data supports a South American origin for Bufonidae. Divergence estimates indicate that the family originated earlier than had been suggested previously (78–99 Ma). The age of the enigmatic Caribbean clade was dated to the late Palaeocene–early Eocene. A return of bufonids to the New World in the Eocene was followed by rapid diversification and secondary expansion into South America by the early Oligocene (Rupelian).

Main conclusions  The South American origin of Bufonidae in the Upper Cretaceous was followed by relatively rapid expansion and radiation around the globe, ending with a return to the Americas via a Eurasian/North American land bridge in the Eocene. Though the exact route of this dispersal (Beringia or North Atlantic) remains unclear, an argument is made for the less frequently invoked North Atlantic connection. The origin of the enigmatic Caribbean lineage was found to be consistent with colonization following the bolide impact at the K/T boundary. These findings provide the first, firm foundation for understanding true toad divergence times and their truly remarkable and global radiation.