Cold-adapted species are thought to have had their largest distribution ranges in central Europe during the glacial periods. Postglacial warming caused severe range shifts of such taxa into higher latitudes and altitudes. We selected the boreomontane butterfly Lycaena helle (Denis & Schiffermüller, 1775) as an example to demonstrate the genetic effects of range changes, and to document the recent status of highly fragmented remnant populations. We analysed five polymorphic microsatellite loci in 1059 individuals sampled at 50 different localities scattered over the European distribution area of the species. Genetic differentiation was strong among the mountain ranges of western Europe, but we did not detect similarly distinct genetic groups following a geographical pattern in the more eastern areas. The Fennoscandian populations form a separate genetic group, and provide evidence for a colonization from southern Finland via northern Scandinavia to south-central Sweden. Species distribution modelling suggests a large extension of the spatial distribution during the last glacial maximum, but highlights strong retractions to a few mountain areas under current conditions. These findings, combined with our genetic data, suggest a more or less continuous distribution of L. helle throughout central Europe at the end of the last ice age. As a consequence of postglacial warming, the species retreated northwards to Fennoscandia and escaped increasing temperatures through altitudinal shifts. Therefore, the species is today restricted to population remnants located at the mountain tops of western Europe, genetically isolated from each other, and evolved into genetically unique entities. Rising temperatures and advancing habitat destruction threaten this wealth of biodiversity. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 101, 155–168.