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Retroviruses, as part of their replication cycle, become integrated into the genome of their host. When this occurs in the germline the integrated proviruses can become an endogenous retrovirus (ERV) which may eventually become fixed in the population. ERVs are present in the genomes of all vertebrates including humans, where more than 50 groups of human endogenous retrovirus (HERVs) have been described within the last 30 years. Despite state-of-the-art genomic tools available for retroviral discovery and the large number of retroviral sequences described to date, there are still gaps in understanding retroviral macroevolutionary patterns and host-retrovirus interactions and a lack of a coherent systematic classification particularly for HERVs. Here, we discuss the current knowledge on ERV (and HERV) classification, distribution and origins focusing on the role of cross-species transmission in retroviral diversity.