Spiny Norman in the Garden of Eden? Dispersal and early biogeography of Placentalia
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The persistent finding of clades endemic to the southern continents (Afrotheria and Xenarthra) near the base of the placental mammal tree has led molecular phylogeneticists to suggest an origin of Placentalia, the crown group of Eutheria, somewhere in the southern continents. Basal splits within the Placentalia have then been associated with vicariance due to the breakup of Gondwana. Southern-origin scenarios suffer from several problems. First, the place of origin of Placentalia cannot be reconstructed using phylogenetic reasoning without reference to outgroups. When available outgroups are considered, a Laurasian origin is most parsimonious. Second, a model of pure vicariance would require that basal placental splits occurred not with the breakup of Gondwana, but of Pangea in the Late Triassic—Early Jurassic. This event long preceded even the oldest molecular divergence estimates for the Placentalia and was coeval only with the earliest mammals in the fossil record. Third, a problem with the number of dispersal events that would be required emerges under different southern-origin scenarios. In considering the geographic distribution of the major placental clades at their first appearance (mostly Early Cenozoic), it becomes clear that a Laurasian center of origin would require fewer dispersal events. Southern-origin models would require at least twice the number of dispersal events in comparison with a model of Laurasian origins. This number of required dispersal events increases if extinct groups of placental mammals are also considered. Results are similar assuming a morphology-based phylogeny. These facts, along with earlier findings speaking against a major placental radiation deep in the Cretaceous without leaving fossil evidence, suggest an origin of Placentalia somewhere in Laurasia with few supraordinal splits occurring before the last 5–10 million years of the Cretaceous.