Three major phylogeographic lineages of the cottid fish Cottus gobio (bullhead) were identified in northern Europe from mitochondrial DNA sequences and allozyme data. The largely separate freshwater distributions of the lineages demonstrate distinct postglacial colonization histories. West of the Baltic Sea, Swedish lakes were invaded from the southwest (Germany). Another, eastern lineage has colonized the inland waters northeast and east of the Baltic, from refugia in northwest Russia; this lineage comprises a distinct subgroup found only from Estonia. The third lineage, found south and southeast of the Baltic, probably descended from rivers draining to the Black Sea from the north (e.g. Dnepr). In coastal waters of the Baltic Sea, and in near-coast inland waters, the lineages are now found intermixed in various combinations. The alternating fresh- and saltwater phases of the Baltic basin have variously enabled and disabled the use of coastal waters as colonization routes. Hypotheses on the chronology of dispersal and lineage mixing can be based on the distribution of the marker genes and the palæohydrographical record. The diversity of the Fennoscandian bullhead thus comprises anciently diverged (probably mid-Pleistocene) refugial lineages that in their freshwater range constitute distinct evolutionarily significant units. The thorough mixing of the various genomic origins in and around the Baltic, however, refutes the controversial view of distinct species status for the western and eastern (‘Cottus koshewnikowi’) bullheads. The postglacial contact of the lineages has created new diversity that cannot be interpreted in a conventional hierarchical framework of taxonomic or conservation units.