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Syst Biol. 2006 Oct;55(5):703-14.

That awkward age for butterflies: insights from the age of the butterfly subfamily Nymphalinae (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae).

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Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.


The study of the historical biogeography of butterflies has been hampered by a lack of well-resolved phylogenies and a good estimate of the temporal span over which butterflies have evolved. Recently there has been surge of phylogenetic hypotheses for various butterfly groups, but estimating ages of divergence is still in its infancy for this group of insects. The main problem has been the sparse fossil record for butterflies. In this study I have used a surprisingly good fossil record for the subfamily Nymphalinae (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) to estimate the ages of diversification of major lineages using Bayesian relaxed clock methods. I have investigated the effects of varying priors on posterior estimates in the analyses. For this data set, it is clear that the prior of the rate of molecular evolution at the ingroup node had the largest effect on the results. Taking this into account, I have been able to arrive at a plausible history of lineage splits, which appears to be correlated with known paleogeological events. The subfamily appears to have diversified soon after the K/T event about 65 million years ago. Several splits are coincident with major paleogeological events, such as the connection of the African and Asian continents about 21 million years ago and the presence of a peninsula of land connecting the current Greater Antilles to the South American continent 35 to 33 million years ago. My results suggest that the age of Nymphalidae is older than the 70 million years speculated to be the age of butterflies as a whole.

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