A major tenet of African Tertiary biogeography posits that lowland rainforest dominated much of Africa in the late Cretaceous and was replaced by xeric vegetation as a response to continental uplift and consequent widespread aridification beginning in the late Paleogene. The aridification of Africa is thought to have been a major factor in the extinction of many African humid-tropical lineages, and in the present-day disparity of species diversity between Africa and other tropical regions. This primarily geologically based model can be tested with independent phylogenetic evidence from widespread African plant groups containing both humid- and xeric-adapted species. We estimated the phylogeny and lineage divergence times within one such angiosperm group, the acridocarpoid clade (Malpighiaceae), with combined ITS, ndhF, and trnL-F data from 15 species that encompass the range of morphological and geographic variation within the group. Dispersal-vicariance analysis and divergence-time estimates suggest that the basal acridocarpoid divergence occurred between African and Southeast Asian lineages approximately 50 million years ago (mya), perhaps after a southward ancestral retreat from high-latitude tropical forests in response to intermittent Eocene cooling. Dispersion of Acridocarpus from Africa to Madagascar is inferred between approximately 50 and 35 mya, when lowland humid tropical forest was nearly continuous between these landmasses. A single dispersal event within Acridocarpus is inferred from western Africa to eastern Africa between approximately 23 and 17 mya, coincident with the widespread replacement of humid forests by savannas in eastern Africa. Although the spread of xeric environments resulted in the extinction of many African plant groups, our data suggest that for others it provided an opportunity for further diversification.
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Vol. 56 • No. 12