BACKGROUND: Multiple A- and B-type cyclins have been identified in animals, but their study is complicated by varying degrees of functional redundancy. A non-essential phenotype may reflect redundancy with a known or as yet unknown gene. Complete sequencing of several animal genomes has allowed us to determine the size of the mitotic cyclin gene family and therefore to start to address this issue. RESULTS: We analyzed the Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila melanogaster and Homo sapiens genomes to identify known and novel A- and B-type cyclin genes and distinguish them from related pseudogenes. We find only a single functional A-type cyclin gene in invertebrates but two in vertebrates. In addition to the single functional cyclin A gene, the C. elegans genome contains numerous cyclin A pseudogenes. In contrast, the number and relationship of B-type cyclins varies considerably between organisms but all contain at least one cyclin B1-like gene and a cyclin B3 gene. CONCLUSIONS: There are three conserved families of mitotic cyclins in animals: A-, B3- and B-type. The precise number of genes within the A- and B-type families varies in different organisms, possibly as an adaptation to their distinct developmental strategies.