New phiomorph rodents from the latest Eocene of Egypt, and the impact of Bayesian "clock"-based phylogenetic methods on estimates of basal hystricognath relationships and biochronology

PeerJ. 2016 Mar 1;4:e1717. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1717. eCollection 2016.


The Fayum Depression of Egypt has yielded fossils of hystricognathous rodents from multiple Eocene and Oligocene horizons that range in age from ∼37 to ∼30 Ma and document several phases in the early evolution of crown Hystricognathi and one of its major subclades, Phiomorpha. Here we describe two new genera and species of basal phiomorphs, Birkamys korai and Mubhammys vadumensis, based on rostra and maxillary and mandibular remains from the terminal Eocene (∼34 Ma) Fayum Locality 41 (L-41). Birkamys is the smallest known Paleogene hystricognath, has very simple molars, and, like derived Oligocene-to-Recent phiomorphs (but unlike contemporaneous and older taxa) apparently retained dP(4)∕4 late into life, with no evidence for P(4)∕4 eruption or formation. Mubhammys is very similar in dental morphology to Birkamys, and also shows no evidence for P(4)∕4 formation or eruption, but is considerably larger. Though parsimony analysis with all characters equally weighted places Birkamys and Mubhammys as sister taxa of extant Thryonomys to the exclusion of much younger relatives of that genus, all other methods (standard Bayesian inference, Bayesian "tip-dating," and parsimony analysis with scaled transitions between "fixed" and polymorphic states) place these species in more basal positions within Hystricognathi, as sister taxa of Oligocene-to-Recent phiomorphs. We also employ tip-dating as a means for estimating the ages of early hystricognath-bearing localities, many of which are not well-constrained by geological, geochronological, or biostratigraphic evidence. By simultaneously taking into account phylogeny, evolutionary rates, and uniform priors that appropriately encompass the range of possible ages for fossil localities, dating of tips in this Bayesian framework allows paleontologists to move beyond vague and assumption-laden "stage of evolution" arguments in biochronology to provide relatively rigorous age assessments of poorly-constrained faunas. This approach should become increasingly robust as estimates are combined from multiple independent analyses of distantly related clades, and is broadly applicable across the tree of life; as such it is deserving of paleontologists' close attention. Notably, in the example provided here, hystricognathous rodents from Libya and Namibia that are controversially considered to be of middle Eocene age are instead estimated to be of late Eocene and late Oligocene age, respectively. Finally, we reconstruct the evolution of first lower molar size among Paleogene African hystricognaths using a Bayesian approach; the results of this analysis reconstruct a rapid latest Eocene dwarfing event along the lineage leading to Birkamys.

Keywords: Africa; Bayesian phylogenetics; Deciduous teeth; Hystricognathi; Oligocene; Paleogene; Phiomorpha.

Grant support

This research was funded by US National Science Foundation (NSF) grant BCS-0416164 to Erik R. Seiffert and Elwyn L. Simons, NSF BCS-0819186 to Erik R. Seiffert, NSF BCS-1231288 to Erik R. Seiffert, John G. Fleagle, Gregg F. Gunnell, and Doug M. Boyer, as well as grants from The Leakey Foundation to E.R.S. and H.M.S. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.