Four types of tetraphyllidean larvae infect cetaceans worldwide: two plerocercoids differing in size, 'small' (SP) and 'large' (LP), and two merocercoids referred to as Phyllobothrium delphini and Monorygma grimaldii. The latter merocercoid larvae parasitize marine mammals exclusively and exhibit a specialised cystic structure. Adult stages are unknown for any of the larvae and thus the role of cetaceans in the life cycle of these species has been a long-standing problem. The SP and LP forms are thought to be earlier stages of P. delphini and M. grimaldii that are presumed to infect large pelagic sharks that feed on cetaceans. A molecular analysis of the D2 variable region of the large subunit ribosomal DNA gene based on several individuals of each larval type collected from three Mediterranean species of cetaceans showed consistent and unique molecular signatures for each type regardless of host species or site of infection. The degree of divergence suggested that LP, P. delphini and M. grimaldii larvae may represent separate species, whereas SP may be conspecific with M. grimaldii. In all host species, individuals of SP accumulated in the gut areas in which the lymphoid tissue was especially developed. We suggest therefore that these larvae use the lymphatic system to migrate to the abdominal peritoneum and mesenteries where they develop into forms recognizable as M. grimaldii. The plerocercoid stage of P. delphini remains unknown. In a partial phylogenetic tree of the Tetraphyllidea, all larvae formed a clade that included a representative of the genus Clistobothrium, some species of which parasitize sharks such as the great white which is known to feed on cetaceans. A bibliographic examination of tetraphyllidean infections in marine mammals indicated that these larvae are acquired mostly offshore. In summary, the evidence suggests that cetaceans play a significant role in the life cycle of these larvae. In addition, it seems clear that cetaceans act as natural intermediate hosts for P. delphini and M. grimaldii, as within these hosts they undergo development from the plerocercoid stage to the merocercoid stage. Because tetraphyllidean species use fish, cephalopods and other marine invertebrates as intermediate hosts, the inclusion of cetaceans in the life cycle would have facilitated their transmission to apex predators such as the large, lamnid sharks. The biological significance of infections of LP in cetaceans is unclear, but infections do not seem to be accidental as such larvae show high prevalence and abundance as well as a high degree of site specificity, particularly in the anal crypts and bile ducts.