Monechma Hochst. s.l. (Acanthaceae) is a diverse and ecologically important plant group in sub-Saharan Africa, well represented in the fire-prone savanna biome and with a striking radiation into the non-fire-prone succulent biome in the Namib Desert. We used RADseq to reconstruct evolutionary relationships within Monechma s.l. and found it to be non-monophyletic and composed of two distinct clades: Group I comprises eight species resolved within the Harnieria clade, whilst Group II comprises 35 species related to the Diclipterinae clade. Our analyses suggest the common ancestors of both clades of Monechma occupied savannas, but both of these radiations (~13 mya crown ages) pre-date the currently accepted origin of the savanna biome in Africa, 5-10 mya. Diversification in the succulent biome of the Namib Desert is dated as beginning only ~1.9 mya. Inflorescence and seed morphology are found to distinguish Groups I and II and related taxa in the Justicioid lineage. Monechma Group II is morphologically diverse, with variation in some traits related to ecological diversification including plant habit. The present work enables future research on these important lineages and provides evidence towards understanding the biogeographical history of continental Africa.
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