Temporal range: Paleocene - Recent
|1. Aardvark 2. Dugong 3. Black and rufous elephant shrew 4. West Indian manatee 5. Golden mole 6. Rock hyrax 7. African bush elephant 8. Tailless tenrec|
Stanhope et al., 1998
Afrotheria is a clade of mammals, the living members of which belong to groups currently living in Africa or that are of African origin: golden moles, sengis (also known as elephant shrews), tenrecs, aardvarks, hyraxes, elephants, and sea cows.
The common ancestry of these animals was not recognized until the late 1990s. Historically, the Paenungulata had been linked to other ungulates; the golden mole, tenrecs, and elephant shrews with the traditional (and polyphyletic) Insectivora; and the aardvarks with the pangolins and the xenarthrans within the invalid taxon Edentata. Continuing work on the molecular and morphological  diversity of afrotherian mammals has provided ever increasing support for their common ancestry.
The afrotherian clade was originally proposed in 1998 based on analyses of DNA sequence data. However, previous studies have hinted at the close interrelationships among subsets of endemic African mammals, some of which date to the 1920s; there were also sporadic papers in the 1980s and 1990s. The core of the Afrotheria consists of the Paenungulata, i.e., elephants, sea cows, and hyraxes, a group with a long history among comparative anatomists. Hence, while DNA sequence data have proven essential to infer the existence of the Afrotheria as a whole, and while the Afroinsectiphilia (insectivoran-grade afrotheres including tenrecs, golden moles, sengis, and aardvarks) were not recognized as part of Afrotheria without DNA data, some precedent is found in the comparative anatomical literature for the idea that at least part of this group forms a clade. The Paleocene genus Ocepeia, the oldest afrotherian known from skull fossils and the best-known Paleocene African mammal, shares similarities with both Paenungulata and Afroinsectiphilia, and may help to characterize the ancestral body type of the afrotherians.
Since the 1990s, increasing molecular and anatomical data have been applied to the classification of animals; both types of data support the idea that afrotherian mammals are descended from a single common ancestor to the exclusion of other mammals. On the anatomical side, features shared by most, if not all, afrotheres include high vertebral counts, aspects of placentation, the shape of the ankle bones, and the relatively late eruption of the permanent dentition. Studies of genomic data, including millions of aligned nucleotides sampled for a growing number of placental mammals, also support Afrotheria as a clade.
Afrotheria is now recognized as one of the four major groups within the Eutheria (containing placental mammals). Relations within the four cohorts, Afrotheria, Xenarthra, Laurasiatheria, and Euarchontoglires, and the identity of the placental root, remain somewhat controversial.
Afrotheria as a clade has usually been discussed without a Linnaean rank, but has been assigned the rank of cohort, magnorder, and superorder. One reconstruction, which applies the molecular clock, proposes that the oldest split occurred between Afrotheria and the other three some 105 million years ago, when the African continent was separated from other major land masses. This idea is consistent with the fossil record of Xenarthra, which is restricted to South America (following recent consensus that Eurotamandua is not a xenarthran).
However, Afrotheria itself does not have a fossil record restricted to Africa, although this does seem to be true for the oldest, undisputed afrotherians. Furthermore, the correspondence of Afrotherian origins with the Africa-South America tectonic split is not consistent with other applications of the molecular clock or with the mammalian fossil record. More recent, genomic-scale phylogenies favor the hypothesis that Afrotheria and Xenarthra comprise sister taxa at the base of the placental mammal radiation.
Relations between the various afrotherian orders are still being studied. On the basis of molecular studies, elephants and manatees appear to be related, and likewise elephant shrews and aardvarks. These findings are compatible with the work of earlier anatomists.
Current status and distribution
Many members of Afrotheria appear to have a high risk of extinction. Species loss within this group would therefore comprise a particularly devastating loss of genetic and evolutionary diversity. The IUCN Afrotheria Specialist Group notes that Afrotheria, as currently reconstructed, includes nearly a third of all mammalian orders currently found in Africa and Madagascar, but only 75 of more than 1,200 mammalian species in those areas.
While most extant species assigned to Afrotheria live in Africa, some (such as the Indian elephant and three of the four sirenian species) occur elsewhere; many of these are also endangered. Prior to the Quaternary extinction event, proboscideans were present on every continent of the world except Australia and Antarctica. Hyraxes lived in much of Eurasia as recently as the end of the Pliocene; the extinct afrotherian orders of embrithopods and desmostylians were also once widely distributed.
Afrotheria is a clade of placental mammals, the stem designation for which is Eutheria. Based on precedent, some clades are junior synonyms and arguably should be replaced[according to whom?] (e.g., Tenrecoidea McDowell 1958 instead of "Afrosoricida" Stanhope et al. 1998).
- Clade Afroinsectiphilia
- Clade Paenungulata
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