A newly recognized family from the Horn of Africa, the Heterocephalidae (Rodentia: Ctenohystrica)

Bruce D. Patterson, Nathan S. Upham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


The Ctenohystrica is one of the three major lineages of rodents and contains diverse forms related to gundis, porcupines, and guinea pigs. Phylogenetic analyses of this group using mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences confirm the monophyly of the infraorder Hystricognathi and most of its recognized subclades, including both the Neotropical caviomorphs and the African phiomorphs, which are recovered as sister groups. Molecular timetrees calibrated with 22 securely placed fossils indicate that hystricognath superfamilies originated in the Eocene and Oligocene and most families had appeared by the end of the Oligocene, ∼23Mya. Divergences leading to hystricognath genera took place in the Miocene and Pliocene, with a single exception. The naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus) diverged from other African mole-rats (Bathyergidae) in the early Oligocene (∼31.2Mya), when the four caviomorph superfamilies (Erethizonoidea and Cavioidea at 32.4Mya, Chinchilloidea and Octodontoidea at 32.8Mya) were first appearing in South America. The extended independent evolution of Heterocephalus suggested by this analysis prompted a closer examination of mole-rat characters. Heterocephalus indeed shares many characters with bathyergids, befitting their joint membership in the parvorder Bathyergomorphi and superfamily Bathyergoidea as well as their shared exploitation of subterranean lifestyles. However, a diverse array of cranial, dental, postcranial, external, and ecological characters distinguishes Heterocephalus from other African mole-rats. These differences equal or exceed those used to diagnose caviomorph families and justify recognizing the naked mole-rat in its own family, Heterocephalidae Landry, 1957. This taxonomic arrangement poses questions for the inter-relationships of fossil and extant mole-rats and brings time equivalence to the ranks assigned to the major clades of hystricognaths.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)942-963
Number of pages22
JournalZoological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bathyergidae
  • Molecular dating
  • Phylogeny
  • Rodent
  • Taxonomy
  • Timetree

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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