Margaritifera margaritifera and M. auricularia are among the most endangered freshwater mussels in the world, and the only species of the genus found in Europe. Our genetic study explores allozymic variability (27 loci) and differentiation at the mitochondrial sequence level (partial COI and 16S rRNA gene sequences). The Spanish M. auricularia population showed genetic parameters of variation that were of the same order as those of other freshwater molluscs (though at the lower end of the range), probably permitting its potential recovery. The difference between this species and M. margaritifera was clearly established (ten diagnostic allozymic loci, Nei = 0.462, and mean nucleotide divergence around 9.4%). The M. margaritifera populations analysed showed a certain degree of population genetic structure (according to allozyme data) that was not, however, related to a geographical cline. Nevertheless, two mitochondrial lineages (albeit very closely related) were identified: a northern lineage extending from Ireland to the Kola Peninsula including the western Atlantic coast, and a second cluster distributed from Ireland to the Iberian Peninsula. The phylogenetic relationships between these two species and other related taxa were established. The putative M. m. durrovensis could be considered an ‘ecophenotype’. Palaeobiogeographical scenarios are presented and indicate unexpected ‘recent’ gene flow between M. margaritifera populations that were theoretically isolated in the early Tertiary. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 2003, 78, 235–252.