The North American beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas population has been divided into a number of putative geographical stocks based upon migration routes and areas of summer concentration. Nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region were used to assess whether these geographical stocks are genetically distinct. Beluga whale samples from 25 sites were collected primarily from aboriginal subsistence hunts across North America from 1984 to 1994. Thirty-nine mtDNA haplotypes were identified in 628 beluga samples. No differences were found in the distribution of haplotypes between male and female beluga whales at any sampling site. These haplotypes segregated into two distinct assemblages in both a haplotype network and a neighbour-joining tree. The haplotype assemblages had a geographically disjunct distribution that suggests postglacial recolonization of the North American Arctic from two different refugia.
An analysis of molecular variance based on haplotype relationships and frequency indicated genetic heterogeneity among beluga whale summering groups (P≤ 0.001). Sequence divergence estimates between sampling sites also indicated geographical differentiation, particularly between samples taken at east Hudson Bay or St Lawrence River and the western or central Arctic. The results of this study show a high degree of philopatry to specific summering areas by this highly mobile animal.