The Cape flora of South Africa grows in a continental area with many diverse and endemic species. We need to understand the evolutionary origins and ages of such 'hotspots' to conserve them effectively. In volcanic islands the timing of diversification can be precisely measured with potassium-argon dating. In contrast, the history of these continental species is based upon an incomplete fossil record and relatively imprecise isotopic palaeotemperature signatures. Here we use molecular phylogenetics and precise dating of two island species within the same clade as the continental taxa to show recent speciation in a species-rich genus characteristic of the Cape flora. The results indicate that diversification began approximately 7-8 Myr ago, coincident with extensive aridification caused by changes in ocean currents. The recent origin of endemic species diversity in the Cape flora shows that large continental bursts of speciation can occur rapidly over timescales comparable to those previously associated with oceanic island radiations.
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