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Chameleon radiation by oceanic dispersal


Historical biogeography is dominated by vicariance methods that search for a congruent pattern of fragmentation of ancestral distributions produced by shared Earth history1,2,3. A focus of vicariant studies has been austral area relationships and the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana3,4,5. Chameleons are one of the few extant terrestrial vertebrates thought to have biogeographic patterns that are congruent with the Gondwanan break-up of Madagascar and Africa6,7. Here we show, using molecular and morphological evidence for 52 chameleon taxa, support for a phylogeny and area cladogram that does not fit a simple vicariant history. Oceanic dispersal—not Gondwanan break-up—facilitated species radiation, and the most parsimonious biogeographic hypothesis supports a Madagascan origin for chameleons, with multiple ‘out-of-Madagascar’ dispersal events to Africa, the Seychelles, the Comoros archipelago, and possibly Reunion Island. Although dispersal is evident in other Indian Ocean terrestrial animal groups8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16, our study finds substantial out-of-Madagascar species radiation, and further highlights the importance of oceanic dispersal as a potential precursor for speciation.

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Figure 1: Inter-relationships of chameleons and corresponding area distributions based on equal-weighted molecular and morphological data and maximum parsimony.
Figure 2: Continental area cladograms for the Indian Ocean region based on chameleon phylogeny and geological break-up models.


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We thank the authorities in Madagascar and the Seychelles for permission to conduct fieldwork. We thank J. Brown, T. Peterson, R. Prum, O. Rieppel, L. Trueb and E. Wiley for comments. C.J.R. and R.A.N. were supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Washington.

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Correspondence to C. J. Raxworthy.

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Raxworthy, C., Forstner, M. & Nussbaum, R. Chameleon radiation by oceanic dispersal. Nature 415, 784–787 (2002).

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