It has been an enduring belief that increasing aridity combined with Pliocene-Pleistocene glacial cycles resulted in the formation of distinct arid zone and temperate zone faunas within Australia. We assembled a molecular phylogeny for the Egernia whitii species group, an endemic group of skinks that comprises representatives from arid and temperate Australia, in order to test several biogeographical hypotheses regarding the origin of the Australian arid zone fauna. Sequence data were obtained from ten of the 11 species within the species group, plus three other Egernia species and an outgroup (Eulamprus heatwolei). We targeted portions of the ND4 (696 base pairs) and 16S rRNA (500 bp) mitochondrial genes and the β-Fibrinogen 7th Intron nuclear gene (648 bp). The edited alignment comprised 1844 characters, of which 551 (30%) were variable and 382 (69%) were parsimony informative. We analysed the data using maximum likelihood and Bayesian techniques and produced a single optimal tree. Our phylogeny strongly supports two major clades within the species group, corresponding to temperate-adapted rock-dwelling species and arid-adapted obligate burrowing species. However, the phylogenetic affinities of E. pulchra were not resolved. Our topology indicates that the New South Wales population of E. margaretae is actually E. whitii and reveals that E. margaretae margaretae and E. m. personata are distinct species. There also appears to be a major phylogeographical break within E. whitii occurring in eastern Victoria. Although our data supported several previously proposed phylogenetic relationships, Shimodaira–Hasegawa tests soundly rejected several suggested affinities between certain species. The arid zone members of the E. whitii species group had been suggested to have originated as a result of multiple periods of colonization during the Pleistocene glaciation cycles. However, our genetic data suggest a single origin (presumably from a semiarid E. multiscutata-like ancestor) for the arid zone members of the group prior to the Plio-Pleistocene, probably during the late Miocene to early Pliocene. Our topology displays substantial sequence divergence between species with short internodes and long terminal branches, indicating rapid adaptive radiations within the arid and temperate zones. The presence of temperate-adapted species within more mesic refugia of the arid zone suggests that the necessary adaptations to aridity for colonizing the dry interior of the continent have not evolved since the initial period of adaptive radiation, despite the long evolutionary history of the species group. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 83, 157–173.