By analysing key morphological characters (with emphasis on shell, radula and stomach anatomy) and a partial fragment of the mitochondrial 16S rRNA gene (alignment length 860 bp), we examined patterns of diversity and differentiation of a previously overlooked radiation of Madagascan pachychilid freshwater gastropods. These analyses resulted in the discovery of three new species in addition to the two species that were already recognized. The complex nomenclatural and taxonomic implications are discussed and the finding of a viviparous reproductive mode in at least one among otherwise oviparous species is reported. Using a mitochondrial phylogeny that includes all currently accepted pachychilid genera and a strict molecular clock approach, we address the historical biogeography of the Madagascan species with respect to vicariant versus dispersalist biogeographical models. Using two alternative calibrations that were previously suggested for other gastropods, the molecular clock tree suggested that the origin of the Pachychilidae dates back to no more than 50 Mya, whereas the origin of the Madagascan lineage is estimated to date to a period between 15.6–31.5 Mya. These estimates are approximately concurrent with the dating of colonization events in a number of other Madagascan animal taxa. The pachychilid radiation on Madagascar appears not to be older than 3–5 Mya. Thus, although the global patterns of pachychilid distribution have earlier been interpreted to suggest a Gondwanan origin of the family, the present study does not support this postulate. Neither the topology of the molecular phylogeny, nor the timing of events as suggested from a molecular clock were found to be congruent with a vicariance scenario within the framework of Gondwanan fragmentation during the Mesozoic but, instead, imply overseas dispersal during the Cenozoic. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 99, 867–894.