Placental mammals consist of three main groups that diverged rapidly, evolving in wildly different directions: Afrotheria (for example, elephants and tenrecs), Xenarthra (such as armadillos and sloths) and Boreoeutheria (all other placental mammals). The relationships between them have been a subject of fierce controversy with multiple studies coming to incompatible conclusions over the last decade leading some researchers to suggest that these relationships might be impossible to resolve.
There are thus many outstanding questions such as which is the oldest sibling of the three? Did the mammals go their separate ways due to South America and Africa breaking apart? And if not, when did placentals split up?
"This has been one of the areas of greatest debate in evolutionary biology, with many researchers considering it impossible to resolve," said lead author Dr Tarver of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences. "Now we've proven these problems can be solved - you just need to analyse genome-scale datasets using models that accurately reflect genomic evolution."