The distribution of a species is determined by a set of ecological correlates (biotic and abiotic factors) and historical phenomena that define and constrain its ecological niche. By examining the geographical projection of the ecological niche, it is possible to identify areas that are suitable for the species ecologically but that are not actually inhabited. Previous studies have used such discords to anticipate the existence of undescribed species; the absence of species may also result from historical barriers that have prevented colonization of the area. Thus, discords between potential and realized niches of a species may result from aspects of the species’s biology (e.g. lack of dispersal ability, specific habitat requirements) or from barriers to dispersal. In this study, we developed ecological niche models of the five Nearctic species of wood-feeding cockroaches in the genus Cryptocercus. One species, C. clevelandi, occurs in the western USA and four (C. darwini, C. garciai, C. punctulatus, C. wrighti) are distributed in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern USA. In general, modelled niches for all species showed ecological restriction relative to the total range of available conditions. Niche models for the eastern USA species predicted the geographical distributions of the other eastern USA species, with the exception of C. garciai, suggesting general overall conservatism in ecological characteristics. Some interspecific differences in modelled niches were also apparent. In general, C. clevelandi was predicted to occupy cooler and drier areas relative to the eastern USA species; among the eastern USA species, C. darwini and C. garciai were predicted to inhabit warmer areas relative to C. punctulatus and C. wrighti. Interspecific differences and similarities were consistent with the phylogenetic relationships among Cryptocercus species previously reported. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 90, 457–466.