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The genetic variability and population structure of worldwide populations of the sperm whale was investigated by sequence analysis of the first 5'L 330 base pairs in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region. The study included a total of 231 individuals from three major oceanic regions, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere. Fifteen segregating nucleotide sites defined 16 mtDNA haplotypes (lineages). The most common mtDNA types were present in more than one oceanic region, whereas ocean-specific types were rare. Analyses of heterogeneity of mtDNA type frequencies between oceans indicated moderate (GST = 0.03) but statistically significant (p = 0.0007) genetic differentiation on a global scale. In addition, strong genetic differentiation was found between potential social groups (GST = 0.03-0.6), indicating matrilineal relatedness within groups. The global nucleotide diversity was quite low (pi = 0.004) implying a recent common mtDNA ancestry (< 100,000) years ago) and a young global population structure. However, within this time period, female dispersal has apparently been limited enough to allow the development of global mtDNA differentiation. The results are consistent with those from observational studies and whaling data indicating stable social affiliations, some degree of area fidelity and latitudinal range limitations in groups of females and juveniles.