Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) mitogenomics: A cautionary tale of defining sub-species from mitochondrial sequence monophyly

Andrea A. Cabrera*, Jeroen P. A. Hoekendijk, Alex Aguilar, Susan G. Barco, Simon Berrow, Dorete Bloch, Asunción Borrell, Haydée A. Cunha, Luciano Dalla Rosa, Carolina P. Dias, Pauline Gauffier, Wensi Hao, Scott Landry, Finn Larsen, Vidal Martín, Sally Mizroch, Tom Oosting, Nils Øien, Christophe Pampoulie, Simone PanigadaRui Prieto, Christian Ramp, Vania E. Rivera-Léon, Jooke Robbins, Conor Ryan, Elena Schall, Richard Sears, Mónica A. Silva, Jorge Urbán, Frederick W. Wenzel, Per J. Palsbøll, Martine Bérubé

*Corresponding author for this work

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The advent of massive parallel sequencing technologies has resulted in an increase of studies based upon complete mitochondrial genome DNA sequences that revisit the taxonomic status within and among species. Spatially distinct monophyly in such mitogenomic genealogies, i.e., the sharing of a recent common ancestor among con-specific samples collected in the same region has been viewed as evidence for subspecies. Several recent studies in cetaceans have employed this criterion to suggest subsequent intraspecific taxonomic revisions. We reason that employing intra-specific, spatially distinct monophyly at non-recombining, clonally inherited genomes is an unsatisfactory criterion for defining subspecies based upon theoretical (genetic drift) and practical (sampling effort) arguments. This point was illustrated by a re-analysis of a global mitogenomic assessment of fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus spp., published by Archer et al. (2013), which proposed to further subdivide the Northern Hemisphere fin whale subspecies, B. p. physalus. The proposed revision was based upon the detection of spatially distinct monophyly among North Atlantic and North Pacific fin whales in a genealogy based upon complete mitochondrial genome DNA sequences. The extended analysis conducted in this study (1,676 mitochondrial control region, 162 complete mitochondrial genome DNA sequences and 20 microsatellite loci genotyped in 358 samples) revealed that the apparent monophyly among North Atlantic fin whales reported by Archer et al. (2013) to be due to low sample sizes. In conclusion, defining sub-species from monophyly (i.e., the absence of para- or polyphyly) can lead to erroneous conclusions due to relatively "trivial" aspects, such as sampling. Basic population genetic processes (i.e., genetic drift and migration) also affect the time to the most recent common ancestor and hence the probability that individuals in a sample are monophyletic.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Pages (from-to)86-97
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Balaenoptera physalus
  • North Atlantic Ocean
  • fin whale
  • mitochondrial genome
  • subspecies


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