• Central America;
  • freshwater fishes;
  • Greater Antilles;
  • ichthyological provinces;
  • Middle America;
  • molecular clocks;
  • molecular phylogeny;
  • plate tectonics;
  • statistical dispersal–vicariance analysis



We present a molecular phylogenetic and biogeographical analysis of the Mesoamerican cichlid fishes (Cichlidae: Cichlasomatinae: Heroini), a dominant part of the freshwater biodiversity of the region. Based on these analyses we investigate the spatial and temporal origins and diversification of the group.




Model-based phylogenetic methods (MrBayes) using seven molecular markers with a virtually complete species-level taxon sampling, together with the Bayesian approach to statistical dispersal–vicariance analysis (S-DIVA), and fossil- and palaeogeography-calibrated beast molecular clock analyses were used to assess the timing of dispersal, vicariance and diversification events.


We present a robust multigene phylogeny resolved from the deepest nodes to the species level. Two colonizations of Middle America and one of the Greater Antilles occurred from South America within a narrow time window during the Oligocene epoch. Cichlid colonization of Central America proceeded from the north in the Early–Middle Miocene. Central America later became repeatedly fragmented during the latter half of the Miocene, which led to the formation of the present ichthyological provinces prior to the final closure of the Panama Isthmus.

Main conclusions

The heroine cichlid fishes colonized the Greater Antilles and Middle America simultaneously through the GAARlandia land bridge during the Oligocene. Central America (including eastern Panama) was colonized from northern Middle America in the Early–Middle Miocene. Thus our results do not support a direct colonization of Middle America from South America, or a Cretaceous–Palaeocene colonization through the proto-Antilles, or a colonization of the Greater Antilles from Middle America as suggested by previous studies.