The Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica are known for their multitude of endemics. Butterflies in particular have received much attention. However, no comprehensive studies aiming to compare populations of butterflies from Sardinia and Corsica with those from the neighbouring mainland and Sicily have been carried out. In the present study, the eleven Satyrinae species inhabiting Sardinia and Corsica islands were examined and compared with continental and Sicilian populations by means of geometric morphometrics of male genitalia. Relative warp computation, discriminant analyses, hierarchical clustering, and cross-validation tests were used to identify coherent distributional patterns including both islands and mainland populations. The eleven species showed multifaceted distributional patterns, although three main conclusions can be drawn: (1) populations from North Africa and Spain are generally different from those belonging to the Italian Peninsula; (2) populations from Sardinia and Sicily often resemble the North Africa/Spain ones; Corsica shows transitional populations similar to those from France; and (3) sea barriers represent filters to dispersal, although their efficacy appears to be unrelated to their extension. Indeed, the short sea straits between Sardinia and Corsica and between Sicily and the Italian Peninsula revealed a strong effectiveness with respect to preventing faunal exchanges; populations giving onto sea channels between Corsica and Northern Italy and between Sicily and Tunisia showed a higher similarity. A comparison of island and mainland distributions of the eleven taxa have helped to unravel the complex co-occurrence of historical factors, refugial dynamics, and recent (post-glacial) dispersal with respect to shaping the populations of Mediterranean island butterflies. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 100, 195–212.