Cichlid fishes are a key model system in the study of adaptive radiation, speciation and evolutionary developmental biology. More than 1600 cichlid species inhabit freshwater and marginal marine environments across several southern landmasses. This distributional pattern, combined with parallels between cichlid phylogeny and sequences of Mesozoic continental rifting, has led to the widely accepted hypothesis that cichlids are an ancient group whose major biogeographic patterns arose from Gondwanan vicariance. Although the Early Cretaceous (ca 135 Ma) divergence of living cichlids demanded by the vicariance model now represents a key calibration for teleost molecular clocks, this putative split pre-dates the oldest cichlid fossils by nearly 90 Myr. Here, we provide independent palaeontological and relaxed-molecular-clock estimates for the time of cichlid origin that collectively reject the antiquity of the group required by the Gondwanan vicariance scenario. The distribution of cichlid fossil horizons, the age of stratigraphically consistent outgroup lineages to cichlids and relaxed-clock analysis of a DNA sequence dataset consisting of 10 nuclear genes all deliver overlapping estimates for crown cichlid origin centred on the Palaeocene (ca 65-57 Ma), substantially post-dating the tectonic fragmentation of Gondwana. Our results provide a revised macroevolutionary time scale for cichlids, imply a role for dispersal in generating the observed geographical distribution of this important model clade and add to a growing debate that questions the dominance of the vicariance paradigm of historical biogeography.
Keywords: biogeography; dispersal; fossil record; molecular clock; vicariance.