Sex–biased dispersal in sperm whales: contrasting mitochondrial and nuclear genetic structure of global populations

Thomas Lyrholm, Olof Leimar, Bo Johanneson, Ulf Gyllensten


The social organization of most mammals is characterized by female philopatry and male dispersal. Such sex–biased dispersal can cause the genetic structure of populations to differ between the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the bi–parental nuclear genome. Here we report on the global genetic structure of oceanic populations of the sperm whale, one of the most widely distributed mammalian species. Groups of females and juveniles are mainly found at low latitudes, while males reach polar waters, returning to tropical and subtropical waters to breed. In comparisons between oceans, we did not find significant heterogeneity in allele frequencies of microsatellite loci (exact test; p = 0.23). Estimates of GST = 0.001 and RST = 0.005 also indicated negligible if any nuclear DNA differentiation. We have previously reported significant differentiation between oceans in mtDNA sequences. These contrasting patterns suggest that interoceanic movements have been more prevalent among males than among females, consistent with observations of females being the philopatric sex and having a more limited latitudinal distribution than males. Consequently, the typical mammalian pattern may have operated on a global scale in sperm whales.