Background It has recently been shown that levels of diversity in mitochondrial DNA are remarkably constant across animals of diverse census population sizes and ecologies, which has led to the suggestion that the effective population of mitochondrial DNA may be relatively constant. Results Here we present several lines of evidence that suggest, to the contrary, that the effective population size of mtDNA does vary, and that the variation can be substantial. First, we show that levels of mitochondrial and nuclear diversity are correlated within all groups of animals we surveyed. Second, we show that the effectiveness of selection on non-synonymous mutations, as measured by the ratio of the numbers of non-synonymous and synonymous polymorphisms, is negatively correlated to levels of mitochondrial diversity. Finally, we estimate the effective population size of mitochondrial DNA in selected mammalian groups and show that it varies by at least an order of magnitude. Conclusions We conclude that there is variation in the effective population size of mitochondria. Furthermore we suggest that the relative constancy of DNA diversity may be due to a negative correlation between the effective population size and the mutation rate per generation.