Genetic variation in Holocene bowhead whales from Svalbard


Øystein Wiig, Fax: +47 22 85 18 37; E-mail:


Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are distributed in the Arctic in five putative stocks. All stocks have been heavily depleted due to centuries of exploitation. In the present study, nucleotide sequence variation of the mitochondrial control region was determined from bone remains of 99 bowhead whales. The bones, 14C dated from recent to more than 50 000 bp, were collected on Svalbard (Spitsbergen) and are expected to relate to ancestors of the today nearly extinct Spitsbergen stock. Fifty-eight haplotypes were found, a few being frequent but many only found in one individual. The most abundant haplotypes of the Spitsbergen stock are the same as those most abundant in the extant Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) Seas stock of bowhead whales. Although FST indicates a slight but statistically significant genetic differentiation between the Spitsbergen and the BCB stocks this was not considered informative due to the very high levels of genetic diversity of mitochondrial DNA haplotypes in both bowhead whale stocks. Other measures such as KST also indicated very low genetic differentiation between the two populations. Nucleotide diversity and haplotype diversity showed only minor differences between the Spitsbergen and BCB stocks. The data suggest that the historic Spitsbergen stock — before the severe bottleneck caused by whaling — did not have substantially more genetic variation than the extant BCB stock. The similar haplotypes of the Holocene Svalbard samples and the current BCB stock indicate significant migration between these two stocks and question the current designation of five distinct stocks of bowhead whales in the Arctic.