Nuclear markers confirm taxonomic status and relationships among highly endangered and closely related right whale species

C.A Gaines, M.P Hare, S.E Beck, H.C Rosenbaum


Right whales (genus: Eubalaena) are among the most endangered mammals, yet their taxonomy and phylogeny have been questioned. A phylogenetic hypothesis based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation recently prompted a taxonomic revision, increasing the number of right whale species to three. We critically evaluated this hypothesis using sequence data from 13 nuclear DNA (nuDNA) loci as well as the mtDNA control region. Fixed diagnostic characters among the nuclear markers strongly support the hypothesis of three genetically distinct species, despite the lack of any diagnostic morphological characters. A phylogenetic analysis of all data produced a strict consensus cladogram with strong support at nodes that define each right whale species as well as relationships among species. Results showed very little conflict among the individual partitions as well as congruence between the mtDNA and nuDNA datasets. These data clearly demonstrate the strength of using numerous independent genetic markers during a phylogenetic analysis of closely related species. In evaluating phylogenetic support contributed by individual loci, 11 of the 14 loci provided support for at least one of the nodes of interest to this study. Only a single marker (mtDNA control region) provided support at all four nodes. A study using any single nuclear marker would have failed to support the proposed phylogeny, and a strong phylogenetic hypothesis was only revealed by the simultaneous analysis of many nuclear loci. In addition, nuDNA and mtDNA data provided complementary levels of support at nodes of different evolutionary depth indicating that the combined use of mtDNA and nuDNA data is both practical and desirable.



  • As this paper exceeds the maximum length normally permitted, the authors have agreed to contribute to production costs.

    • Received May 20, 2004.
    • Accepted August 11, 2004.
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