The yabby, Cherax destructor Clark, is the most widespread species in the most widespread genus of Australian freshwater crayfish. It has a distribution that spans several distinct drainage basins and biogeographical regions within semiarid and arid inland Australia. Here we report a study designed to investigate patterns of genetic variation within the species and hypotheses put forward to account for its extensive distribution using DNA sequences from the mitochondrial 16S rRNA gene region. Results of phylogenetic analyses contradicted previous allozyme data and revealed relatively deep phylogenetic structure in the form of three geographically correlated clades. The degree of genetic divergences between clades (8–15 bp) contrasted with the relatively limited haplotype diversity within clades (1–3 bp). Network-based analyses confirmed these results and revealed genetic structure on both larger and more restricted geographical scales. Nevertheless some haplotypes and 1-step clades had large distributions, some of which crossed boundaries between river basins and aquatic biogeographical regions. Thus both older and more recent historical processes, including fragmentation on a larger geographical scale and more recent range expansion on a local scale, appear to be responsible for the observed pattern of genetic variation within C. destructor. These results support elements of alternative hypotheses previously put forward to account for the evolutionary history of C. destructor and the origin of its large distribution. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 83, 539–550.