Diversification of South American spiny rats (Echimyidae): a multigene phylogenetic approach

We investigated the phylogenetic relationships of 14 Echimyidae (spiny rats), one Myocastoridae (nutrias) and one Capromyidae (hutias) genera based on three newly sequenced nuclear genes (APOB, GHR and RBP3) and five previously published markers (the nuclear RAG1 and vWF, and the mitochondrial cytochrome b, 12S rRNA and 16S rRNA). We recovered a well-supported phylogeny within the Echimyidae, although the evolutionary relationships among arboreal echimyid taxa remain unresolved. Molecular divergence times estimated using a Bayesian relaxed molecular clock suggest a Middle Miocene origin for most of the extant echimyid genera. Echimyidae seems to constitute an example of evolutionary radiation with high species diversity, yet they exhibit only narrow skull morphological changes, and the arboreal and terrestrial taxa are shown to retain numerous plesiomorphic features. The most recent common ancestor of spiny rats is inferred to be a ground-dwelling taxon that has subsequently diverged into fossorial, semiaquatic and arboreal habitats. The arboreal clade polytomy and ancestral character estimations suggest that the colonization of the arboreal niche constituted the keystone event of the echimyid radiation. However, biogeographical patterns suggest a strong influence of allopatric speciation in addition to ecology-driven diversification among South American spiny rats.