Phylogeny and biogeography of Maclura (Moraceae) and the origin of an anachronistic fruit

Elliot M. Gardner*, Paya Sarraf, Evelyn W. Williams, Nyree J.C. Zerega

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Background and Aims Maclura (ca. 12 spp., Moraceae) is a widespread genus of trees and woody climbers found on five continents. Maclura pomifera, the Osage orange, is considered a classic example of an anachronistic fruit. Native to the central USA, the grapefruit-sized Osage oranges are unpalatable and have no known extant native dispersers, leading to speculation that the fruits were adapted to extinct megafauna. Our aim was to reconstruct the phylogeny, estimate divergence dates, and infer ancestral ranges of Maclura in order to test the monophyly of subgeneric classifications and to understand evolution and dispersal patterns in this globally distributed group. Methods Employing Bayesian and maximum-likelihood methods, we reconstructed the Maclura phylogeny using two nuclear and five chloroplast loci from all Maclura species and outgroups representing all Moraceae tribes. We reconstructed ancestral ranges and syncarp sizes using a family level dated tree, and used Ornstein-Uhlenbeck models to test for significant changes in syncarp size in the Osage orange lineage. Key Results Our analyses support a monophyletic Maclura with a Paleocene crown. Subgeneric sections were monophyletic except for the geographically-disjunct Cardiogyne. There was strong support for current species delineations except in the widespread M. cochinchinensis. South America was reconstructed as the ancestral range for Maclura with subsequent colonization of Africa and the northern hemisphere. The clade containing M. pomifera likely diverged in the Oligocene, closely coinciding with crown divergence dates of the mammoth/mastodon and sloth clades that contain possible extinct dispersers. The best fitting model for syncarp size evolution indicated an increase in both syncarp size and the rate of syncarp size evolution in the Osage orange lineage. Conclusions We conclude that our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that M. pomifera was adapted to dispersal by extinct megafauna. In addition, we consider dispersal rather than vicariance to be most likely responsible for the present distribution of Maclura, as crown divergence post-dated the separation of Africa and South America. We propose revised sectional delimitations based on the phylogeny. This study represents a complete phylogenetic and biogeographic analysis of this globally distributed genus and provides a basis for future work, including a taxonomic revision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)49-59
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
StatePublished - Dec 2017


  • Anachronistic fruit
  • Historical biogeography
  • Maclura
  • Megafauna dispersal
  • Moraceae
  • Osage orange

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology


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