Few studies have examined systematic relationships of right whales (Eubalaena spp.) since the original species descriptions, even though they are one of the most endangered large whales. Little morphological evidence exists to support the current species designations for Eubalaena glacialis in the northern hemisphere and E. australis in the southern hemisphere. Differences in migratory behaviour or antitropical distribution between right whales in each hemisphere are considered a barrier to gene flow and maintain the current species distinctions and geographical populations. However, these distinctions between populations have remained controversial and no study has included an analysis of all right whales from the three major ocean basins. To address issues of genetic differentiation and relationships among right whales, we have compiled a database of mitochondrial DNA control region sequences from right whales representing populations in all three ocean basins that consist of: western North Atlantic E. glacialis, multiple geographically distributed populations of E. australis and the first molecular analysis of historical and recent samples of E. glacialis from the western and eastern North Pacific Ocean. Diagnostic characters, as well as phylogenetic and phylogeographic analyses, support the possibility that three distinct maternal lineages exist in right whales, with North Pacific E. glacialis being more closely related to E. australis than to North Atlantic E. glacialis. Our genetic results provide unequivocal character support for the two usually recognized species and a third distinct genetic lineage in the North Pacific under the Phylogenetic Species Concept, as well as levels of genetic diversity among right whales world-wide.
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