Molecular phylogeny and biogeography of the dwarf boas of the family Tropidophiidae (Serpentes: Alethinophidia)

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Although present in the South American continent, dwarf boas (Tropidophiidae) show their greatest extant diversification in the Caribbean region, reaching their highest diversity in Cuba. Despite their remarkable species richness, phylogenetic affinities among species of Tropidophis and Trachyboa are still poorly known. Here, we provide a multi-locus phylogenetic hypothesis of the family that includes 25 of the 37 known continental and insular species, including most of its highly diverse Cuban endemic radiation (16 out of 17 species sampled). We also provide a time-calibrated tree derived from our molecular data. Our phylogenetic results indicate that the genus Tropidophis and its mainland and Cuban radiations are paraphyletic, while the Caribbean radiation forms a well-supported clade. We therefore synonymize Trachyboa with Tropidophis and provide new definitions for the species groups. Our time-calibrated tree suggests that tropidophiids originated along the northwestern Andean region of continental South America, diverging from its known sister-group genus Anilius during the late Cretaceous. The Atlantic Rainforest radiation diverged from the Andean radiation during the late Eocene. A mainland tropidophiid ancestor subsequently dispersed from northern South America to the Caribbean region in the latest Eocene. Dispersal likely took place through a near-continuous terrestrial land bridge that connected South America to the Greater Antilles during the late Eocene to early Oligocene (35–33 Ma). The existence of this land bridge, whether formed by the Aves Ridge (GAARlandia Hypothesis) or by a more southernly positioned landmass connecting the Greater Antilles and the northern Lesser Antilles Ridge (GRANoLA hypothesis), remains a topic of debate, which we address in this paper. After that main dispersal event, West Indian tropidophiids underwent over ten speciation events, rapidly colonizing the Caribbean islands. We also address the vertebral morphology of fossil and extant Tropidophiidae, with our observations challenging the current classification of several fossil taxa within crown-Tropidophiidae.
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