Animal mtDNAs are typically small (approximately 16 kbp), circular-mapping molecules that encode 37 or fewer tightly packed genes. Here we investigate whether similarly compact mitochondrial genomes are also present in the closest unicellular relatives of animals, i.e., choanoflagellate and ichthyosporean protists. We find that the gene content and architecture of the mitochondrial genomes of the choanoflagellate Monosiga brevicollis, the ichthyosporean Amoebidium parasiticum, and Metazoa are radically different from one another. The circular-mapping choanoflagellate mtDNA with its long intergenic regions is four times as large and contains two times as many protein genes as do animal mtDNAs, whereas the ichthyosporean mitochondrial genome totals >200 kbp and consists of several hundred linear chromosomes that share elaborate terminal-specific sequence patterns. The highly peculiar organization of the ichthyosporean mtDNA raises questions about the mechanism of mitochondrial genome replication and chromosome segregation during cell division in this organism. Considering that the closest unicellular relatives of animals possess large, spacious, gene-rich mtDNAs, we posit that the distinct compaction characteristic of metazoan mitochondrial genomes occurred simultaneously with the emergence of a multicellular body plan in the animal lineage.