Phylogenetics of Baleen Whales


At present, there are 15 species of baleen whales that belong to the monophyletic suborder Mysticeti. The family‐level designations of Balaenidae (right and bowhead whales) and Neobalaenidae (pygmy right whales) are strongly supported and well resolved. However, family‐level designations and inter‐relationships among the remaining species and genera of Balaenopteridae (rorquals) and Eschrichtiidae (grey whales) are less well resolved. Taxonomic relationships vary between studies, reconstruction methods and marker types, despite strong morphological support for the placement of Eschrichtiidae as a sister group to the Balaenopteridae. This phylogenetic uncertainty appears to have originated from a rapid Miocene radiation of both families, which has resulted in incomplete sorting of genetic lineages and therefore conflicting phylogenetic signals among nuclear and mitochondrial loci. The earliest radiation of baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti) occurred in the Late Eocene. The fossil record of subsequent species diversifications has been strongly correlated with changes in fossil diatom diversity and isotopic oxygen levels over time.

Key Concepts:

  • The monophyletic suborder Mysticeti is composed of four families and 15 species of baleen whales.

  • Mysticete families Balaenidae and Neobalaenidae are strongly supported and well resolved.

  • Molecular genetic support for inter‐species relationships within and between Balaenopteridae and Eschrichtiidae is poorly resolved and suggests a rapid Miocene radiation of lineages at the origin of these families.

Keywords: baleen whales; Mysticeti; Balaenoptera; phylogeny; divergence times; fossil; calibration point; evolution

Figure 1.

A mysticete baleen comb. Copyright © 2007 David Monniaux.

Figure 2.

Phylogenetic hypotheses of evolutionary relationships among baleen whales. Studies supporting various evolutionary relationships (referred to by clade number) are summarised in Table . Phylogeny shown is as summarised by McGowen et al.. Cetacean illustrations copyright © Leaper and Miller.



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Further Reading

Bannister J (2009) Baleen whales (Mysticetes). In: Perrin WF, Thewissen JGM and Würsig B (eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, pp. 80–89. San Diego: Elsevier.

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Jackson, Jennifer A(Dec 2010) Phylogenetics of Baleen Whales. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022870]