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C R Biol. 2009 Feb-Mar;332(2-3):129-39. doi: 10.1016/j.crvi.2008.07.010. Epub 2008 Nov 28.

The molecular evolutionary tree of lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians.

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Département systématique et évolution, UMR 7138, Systématique, évolution, adaptation, case postale 26, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, 57 rue Cuvier, 75231 Paris cedex 05, France.


Squamate reptiles (lizards, snakes, amphisbaenians) number approximately 8200 living species and are a major component of the world's terrestrial vertebrate diversity. Recent molecular phylogenies based on protein-coding nuclear genes have challenged the classical, morphology-based concept of squamate relationships, requiring new classifications, and drawing new evolutionary and biogeographic hypotheses. Even the key and long-held concept of a dichotomy between iguanians (approximately 1470 sp.) and scleroglossans (all other squamates) has been refuted because molecular trees place iguanians in a highly nested position. Together with snakes and anguimorphs, iguanians form a clade--Toxicofera--characterized by the presence of toxin secreting oral glands and demonstrating a single early origin of venom in squamates. Consequently, neither the varanid lizards nor burrowing lineages such as amphisbaenians or dibamid lizards are the closest relative of snakes. The squamate timetree shows that most major groups diversified in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, 200-66 million years (Myr) ago. In contrast, five of the six families of amphisbaenians arose during the early Cenozoic, approximately 60-40 Myr ago, and oceanic dispersal on floating islands apparently played a significant role in their distribution on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Among snakes, molecular data support the basic division between the small fossorial scolecophidians (approximately 370 sp.) and the alethinophidians (all other snakes, approximately 2700 sp.). They show that the alethinophidians were primitively macrostomatan and that this condition was secondarily lost by burrowing lineages. The diversification of alethinophidians resulted from a mid-Cretaceous vicariant event, the separation of South America from Africa, giving rise to Amerophidia (aniliids and tropidophiids) and Afrophidia (all other alethinophidians). Finally, molecular phylogenies have made it possible to draw a detailed evolutionary history of venom among advanced snakes (Caenophidia), a key functional innovation underlying their radiation (approximately 2500 sp.).

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