The sea acts as an effective dispersal barrier for most terrestrial animal species. Narrow sea straits, therefore, often represent areas where species are able to disperse from one land mass to another. In the Mediterranean Sea, the narrowest connecting points between North Africa and Europe are the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Sicily. In the past, climatic oscillations caused changing sea levels and thus influenced the permeability of these sea straits. We analysed the genetic structure of four butterfly species that all occur on both sides of the Strait of Sicily. In all four species, we observed a lack of genetic differentiation between the populations of North Africa and those of Italy. Species distribution models support the strong cohesiveness in that they show a largely continuous glacial distribution over Italy and North Africa. The data obtained reveal that there was a large exchange of individuals between Italy and the eastern Maghreb during the last ice age. This might not only be the case for the species under investigation in the present study, but also might represent a more general pattern for mobile thermophilic western Palearctic species. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 99, 818–830.