The plethodontid genus Batrachoseps, the slender salamanders, is the most diverse clade of salamanders in western North America, but it has posed taxonomic difficulties because it contains many morphologically cryptic species. A segment of the mitochondrial DNA gene cytochrome b was studied for 278 individuals densely sampled from throughout the range of all 18 described species and several undescribed species. Phylogenetic analyses of the mtDNA data identify six major clades, one corresponding to the subgenus Plethopsis and five within a monophyletic subgenus Batrachoseps. All major clades and most species within these clades display strong phylogeographic structuring. Comparisons of mtDNA and allozyme data show that several allozymically cohesive groups are not monophyletic with respect to mtDNA. We suggest that this phenomenon results from fragmentation of populations, divergence in allopatry, and then recontact and gradual merging of units caused predominantly by male-mediated gene flow. The mtDNA offers evidence that populations were once more isolated than they are now, while the patterns of allozyme variation reflect recent and current interactions among populations. The complex patterns of morphological, allozymic and mtDNA variation associated with the constantly changing geological landscape give insight into the nature of processes responsible for species formation in Batrachoseps. © 2002 The Linnean Society of London. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2002, 76, 361–391.