Large-scale biogeographical patterns of Sphingidae in the Malesian archipelago are investigated, using Geographic Information System-supported estimates of species ranges determined from a compilation of specimen-label databases. Distribution maps for all species and checklists for 114 islands are presented at http://www.sphingidae-sea.biozentrum.uni-wuerzburg.de. Phenetic analyses of island faunas reveal ‘textbook’-like patterns of biogeographical associations in the region, with Wallace’s line emerging as the main faunal discontinuity in the region. Further analyses, using partial Mantel statistics, indicate that historical features of geography (such as land bridges formed during periods of lower sea levels) are an important determinant of faunal similarity, but recent dispersal can also explain a significant portion of present day hawkmoth distributions. Faunal turnover in relation to distance between islands is steeper for Smerinthinae than for other subfamilies, indicating different dispersal abilities among higher taxonomic groups. These differences are discussed in the light of life-history differences between the subfamilies. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 89, 455–468.