Phylogenetic analyses based on mtDNA cytochrome b were performed in 42 lizards of the Gymnodactylus darwinii complex from three regions within Brazil's Atlantic Forest. Mainland regions and continental shelf islands in the south-eastern range and mainland areas from the north-east were sampled. The criteria of maximum parsimony (MP), maximum likelihood (ML) and Bayesian methods were explored, with the robustness for nodes assessed by bootstrapping (MP and ML) and posterior probabilities (Bayesian searches). By all methods, three distinctive phylogroups were recovered: a south-eastern clade (SE) and two clades from northern regions (NE1 and NE2). The pattern of genetic structure of the major clades coincided with the presence of river systems in the Atlantic Forest, and based on corrected genetic distances between those clades, divergence times were tentatively estimated using mtDNA rates calibrated for squamate reptiles. The putative role of Atlantic Forest rivers in generating differentiation is discussed. We present a hypothesis of species limits for G. darwinii, based on concordant lines of evidence including cytogenetic and mtDNA analyses. Two chromosome races (cytotype A, 2n = 38; and cytotype B, 2n = 40) had distributions concordant with clades SE and NE1 + NE2, respectively. These races are interpreted to be full species on the basis of a number of empirical criteria. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 85, 13–26.