Mitochondrial genomes provided the first widely used sequences that were sufficiently informative to resolve relationships among animals across a wide taxonomic domain, from within species to between phyla. However, mitogenome studies supported several anomalous relationships and fell partly out of favour as sequencing multiple, independent nuclear loci proved to be highly effective. A tendency to blame mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has overshadowed efforts to understand and ameliorate underlying model misspecification. Here we find that influential assessments of the infidelity of mitogenome phylogenies have often been overstated, but nevertheless, substitution saturation and compositional non-stationarity substantially mislead reconstruction. We show that RY coding the mtDNA, excluding protein-coding 3rd codon sites, partitioning models based on amino acid hydrophobicity and enhanced taxon sampling improve the accuracy of mitogenomic phylogeny reconstruction for placental mammals, almost to the level of multi-gene nuclear datasets. Indeed, combined analysis of mtDNA with 3-fold longer nuclear sequence data either maintained or improved upon the nuclear support for all generally accepted clades, even those that mtDNA alone did not favour, thus indicating "hidden support". Confident mtDNA phylogeny reconstruction is especially important for understanding the evolutionary dynamics of mitochondria themselves, and for merging extinct taxa into the tree of life, with ancient DNA often only accessible as mtDNA. Our ancient mtDNA analyses lend confidence to the relationships of three extinct megafaunal taxa: glyptodonts are nested within armadillos, the South American ungulate, Macrauchenia is sister to horses and rhinoceroses, and sabre-toothed and scimitar cats are the monophyletic sister-group of modern cats.

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