The systematics of right whales (Mysticeti: Balaenidae)

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Abstract

Balaenidae (right whales) are large, critically endangered baleen whales represented by four living species. The evolutionary relationships of balaenids are poorly known, with the number of genera, relationships to fossil taxa, and position within Mysticeti in contention. This study employs a comprehensive set of morphological characters to address aspects of balaenid phylogeny. A sister-group relationship between neobalaenids and balaenids is strongly supported, although this conflicts with molecular evidence, which may be an artifact of long-branch attraction (LBA). Monophyly of Balaenidae is supported, and three major clades are recognized: (1) extinct genus Balaenula, (2) extant and extinct species of the genus Eubalaena, and (3) extant and extinct species of the genus Balaena plus the extinct taxon, Balaenella. The relationships of these clades to one another, as well as to the early Miocene stem balaenid, Morenocetus parvus, remain unresolved. Pliocene taxa, Balaenula astensis and Balaenula balaenopsis, form a clade that is the sister group to the Japanese Pliocene Balaenula sp. Eubalaena glacialis and Pliocene Eubalaena belgica, are in an unresolved polytomy with a clade including E. japonica and E. australis. Extant and fossil species of Balaena form a monophyletic group that is sister group to the Dutch Pliocene Balaenella, although phylogenetic relationships within Balaena remain unresolved.

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