Hyainailourine and teratodontine cranial material from the late Eocene of Egypt and the application of parsimony and Bayesian methods to the phylogeny and biogeography of Hyaenodonta (Placentalia, Mammalia)

PeerJ. 2016 Nov 10;4:e2639. doi: 10.7717/peerj.2639. eCollection 2016.


Hyaenodonta is a diverse, extinct group of carnivorous mammals that included weasel- to rhinoceros-sized species. The oldest-known hyaenodont fossils are from the middle Paleocene of North Africa and the antiquity of the group in Afro-Arabia led to the hypothesis that it originated there and dispersed to Asia, Europe, and North America. Here we describe two new hyaenodont species based on the oldest hyaenodont cranial specimens known from Afro-Arabia. The material was collected from the latest Eocene Locality 41 (L-41, ∼34 Ma) in the Fayum Depression, Egypt. Akhnatenavus nefertiticyon sp. nov. has specialized, hypercarnivorous molars and an elongate cranial vault. In A. nefertiticyon the tallest, piercing cusp on M1-M2 is the paracone. Brychotherium ephalmos gen. et sp. nov. has more generalized molars that retain the metacone and complex talonids. In B. ephalmos the tallest, piercing cusp on M1-M2 is the metacone. We incorporate this new material into a series of phylogenetic analyses using a character-taxon matrix that includes novel dental, cranial, and postcranial characters, and samples extensively from the global record of the group. The phylogenetic analysis includes the first application of Bayesian methods to hyaenodont relationships. B. ephalmos is consistently placed within Teratodontinae, an Afro-Arabian clade with several generalist and hypercarnivorous forms, and Akhnatenavus is consistently recovered in Hyainailourinae as part of an Afro-Arabian radiation. The phylogenetic results suggest that hypercarnivory evolved independently three times within Hyaenodonta: in Teratodontinae, in Hyainailourinae, and in Hyaenodontinae. Teratodontines are consistently placed in a close relationship with Hyainailouridae (Hyainailourinae + Apterodontinae) to the exclusion of "proviverrines," hyaenodontines, and several North American clades, and we propose that the superfamily Hyainailouroidea be used to describe this relationship. Using the topologies recovered from each phylogenetic method, we reconstructed the biogeographic history of Hyaenodonta using parsimony optimization (PO), likelihood optimization (LO), and Bayesian Binary Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) to examine support for the Afro-Arabian origin of Hyaenodonta. Across all analyses, we found that Hyaenodonta most likely originated in Europe, rather than Afro-Arabia. The clade is estimated by tip-dating analysis to have undergone a rapid radiation in the Late Cretaceous and Paleocene; a radiation currently not documented by fossil evidence. During the Paleocene, lineages are reconstructed as dispersing to Asia, Afro-Arabia, and North America. The place of origin of Hyainailouroidea is likely Afro-Arabia according to the Bayesian topologies but it is ambiguous using parsimony. All topologies support the constituent clades-Hyainailourinae, Apterodontinae, and Teratodontinae-as Afro-Arabian and tip-dating estimates that each clade is established in Afro-Arabia by the middle Eocene.

Keywords: Africa; Bayesian systematics; Carnivory; Creodonta; Mammal evolution; Paleogene.

Grant support

Recent fieldwork in Egypt, and digital curation of Fayum fossils, has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (BCS-0416164, BCS-0819186, and BCS-1231288), The Leakey Foundation, and Gordon and Ann Getty. M.R.B. was supported by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DEB-1311354), a Turkana Basin Institute Graduate Fellowship, and a Stony Brook University Graduate Council Fellowship. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.