The radiation of the mammals provides a 165-million-year test case for evolutionary theories of how species occupy and then fill ecological niches. It is widely assumed that species often diverge rapidly early in their evolution, and that this is followed by a longer, drawn-out period of slower evolutionary fine-tuning as natural selection fits organisms into an increasingly occupied niche space. But recent studies have hinted that the process may not be so simple. Here we apply statistical methods that automatically detect temporal shifts in the rate of evolution through time to a comprehensive mammalian phylogeny and data set of body sizes of 3,185 extant species. Unexpectedly, the majority of mammal species, including two of the most speciose orders (Rodentia and Chiroptera), have no history of substantial and sustained increases in the rates of evolution. Instead, a subset of the mammals has experienced an explosive increase (between 10- and 52-fold) in the rate of evolution along the single branch leading to the common ancestor of their monophyletic group (for example Chiroptera), followed by a quick return to lower or background levels. The remaining species are a taxonomically diverse assemblage showing a significant, sustained increase or decrease in their rates of evolution. These results necessarily decouple morphological diversification from speciation and suggest that the processes that give rise to the morphological diversity of a class of animals are far more free to vary than previously considered. Niches do not seem to fill up, and diversity seems to arise whenever, wherever and at whatever rate it is advantageous.
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