BACKGROUND: Transposable elements (TEs) are mobile DNA sequences, colloquially known as jumping genes because of their ability to replicate to new genomic locations. TEs can jump between organisms or species when given a vector of transfer, such as a tick or virus, in a process known as horizontal transfer. Here, we propose that LINE-1 (L1) and Bovine-B (BovB), the two most abundant TE families in mammals, were initially introduced as foreign DNA via ancient horizontal transfer events. RESULTS: Using analyses of 759 plant, fungal and animal genomes, we identify multiple possible L1 horizontal transfer events in eukaryotic species, primarily involving Tx-like L1s in marine eukaryotes. We also extend the BovB paradigm by increasing the number of estimated transfer events compared to previous studies, finding new parasite vectors of transfer such as bed bug, leech and locust, and BovB occurrences in new lineages such as bat and frog. Given that these transposable elements have colonised more than half of the genome sequence in today's mammals, our results support a role for horizontal transfer in causing long-term genomic change in new host organisms. CONCLUSIONS: We describe extensive horizontal transfer of BovB retrotransposons and provide the first evidence that L1 elements can also undergo horizontal transfer. With the advancement of genome sequencing technologies and bioinformatics tools, we anticipate our study to be a valuable resource for inferring horizontal transfer from large-scale genomic data.