Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rapid and recent origin of species richness in the Cape flora of South Africa


The Cape flora of South Africa grows in a continental area with many diverse and endemic species1,2,3,4. We need to understand the evolutionary origins and ages of such ‘hotspots’ to conserve them effectively5. In volcanic islands the timing of diversification can be precisely measured with potassium–argon dating. In contrast, the history of these continental species is based upon an incomplete fossil record and relatively imprecise isotopic palaeotemperature signatures. Here we use molecular phylogenetics and precise dating of two island species within the same clade as the continental taxa to show recent speciation in a species-rich genus characteristic of the Cape flora. The results indicate that diversification began approximately 7–8 Myr ago, coincident with extensive aridification caused by changes in ocean currents. The recent origin of endemic species diversity in the Cape flora shows that large continental bursts of speciation can occur rapidly over timescales comparable to those previously associated with oceanic island radiations6,7.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: One of the six phylogenetic trees.
Figure 2: Histograms of bootstrap results using two different nodes to calibrate the molecular clock for Phylica.


  1. 1

    Good, R. The Geography of Flowering Plants Ch. 10 190–191 (Longman, London, 1974).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Goldblatt, P. An analysis of the flora of southern Africa: its characteristics, relationships and origins. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 65, 369–436 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Takhtajan, A. Floristic Regions of the World Ch. 4 263–267 (Univ. California Press, Berkeley, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Linder, H. P., Meadows, M. E. & Cowling, R. M. in The Ecology of Fynbos: Nutrients, Fire and Diversity (ed. Cowling, R. M.) 113–134 (Oxford Univ. Press, Cape Town, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., da Fonseca, G. A. B. & Kent, J. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853–858 (2000).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Baldwin, B. G. & Robichaux, R. H. in Hawaiian Biogeography: Evolution on a Hotspot Archipelago (eds Wagner, W. L. & Funk, V. A.) 257–287 (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Givnish, T. J., Sytsma, K. J., Smith, J. F. & Hahn, W. J. in Hawaiian Biogeography: Evolution on a Hotspot Archipelago (eds Wagner, W. L. & Funk, V. A.) 288–337 (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Cronk, Q. C. B. The Endemic Flora of St Helena 23 (Anthony Nelson, Oswestry, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Axelrod, D. I. & Raven, P. H. in Biology and Ecology of Southern Africa (ed. Werger, M. J. A.) 77–130 (Junk, The Hague, 1978).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Coetzee, J. A. in Antarctic Glacial History and World Palaeoenvironments (ed. Van Zinderen Bakker, E. M.) 115–127 (Balkema, Rotterdam, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Coetzee, J. A. Intimations on the Tertiary vegetation of southern Africa. Bothalia 14, 345–354 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Kennet, J. P. Palaeoceanographic and biogeographic evolution of the southern ocean during the Cenozoic, and Cenozoic microfossil datums. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 31, 123–152 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Linder, H. P. & Mann, D. M. The phylogeny and biogeography of Thamnochortus (Restionaceae). Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 128, 319–357 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Linder, H. P. in Species and Speciation (ed. Vrba, E. S.) 53–57 (Transvaal Museum Monograph 4 Pretoria, 1985).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Johnson, S. D. Pollination, adaptation and speciation models in the Cape flora of South Africa. Taxon 45, 59–66 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Hodges, S. A. & Arnold, M. L. Columbines: a geographically widespread species flock. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 92, 5129–5132 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Wojciechowski, M. F., Sanderson, M. J. & Hu, J.-M. Evidence on the monophyly of Astragalus (Fabaceae) and its major subgroups based on nuclear ribosomal QNA ITS and chloroplast DNA trnL intron data. Syst. Bot. 24, 409–437 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Richardson, J. E., Fay, M. F., Cronk, Q. C. B., Bowman, D. & Chase, M. W. A molecular analysis of Rhamnaceae using plastid rbcL and trnL-F sequences. Am. J. Bot. 87, 1309–1324 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Swofford, D. L. PAUP*4.0b2: Phylogenetic Analysis Using Parsimony. (Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts, 1998).

  20. 20

    Fitch, W. M. Toward defining the course of evolution: minimum change for a specified tree topology. Syst. Zool. 20, 406–416 (1971).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Felsenstein, J. Confidence limits on phylogenies: an approach using the bootstrap. Evolution 39, 783–791 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Felsenstein, J. Evolutionary trees from DNA-sequences—a maximum likelihood approach. J. Mol. Evol. 17, 368–376 (1981).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Sanderson, M. J. A nonparametric approach to estimating divergence times in the absence of rate constancy. Mol. Biol. Evol. 14, 1218–1232 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Rambaut, A. & Charleston, M. TreeEdit version 1.0 alpha 4-61 〈〉 (2000).

Download references


We are grateful to P. Crane, M. Sanderson and the Tropical Biology Group at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, for critical comments and discussion. We thank A. de Bruijn and J. Joseph for technical support. The work was funded by a studentship to J.E.R. from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which also made possible a four-month visit by F.M.W. to Kew to collect additional data. We also thank collectors of plant material: Y. Mungroo, C. Thébaud, M. van der Bank and R. Cairns-Wicks.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to James E. Richardson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Richardson, J., Weitz, F., Fay, M. et al. Rapid and recent origin of species richness in the Cape flora of South Africa. Nature 412, 181–183 (2001).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing