Many studies have found that species richness in the Western Palaearctic follows a latitudinal trend, yet the importance of geographical and ecological factors in shaping species ranges remains obscure. In this article, we present geographical patterns of darkling beetles (Tenebrionidae), a species-rich group of arthropods. We relate the spatial distributions of species, instead of simply species richness, to spatial and climatic gradients, and test the effects of area (by species–area relationships), latitude (by various climatic gradients) and environmental diversity (by elevation) using simultaneous autoregressive models to identify major correlates of species richness. We then use nestedness and co-occurrence analyses to identify glacial refugial centres and postglacial dispersal trajectories responsible for current species ranges. Our results indicate the presence of two refugial centres (in the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas) that appear to have been particularly important in shaping extant tenebrionid ranges. Northern countries were selectively colonized by more tolerant and, possibly, more mobile species, which survived in southern refugia during the Pleistocene glacial maxima, whereas the low dispersal capabilities of many species that evolved in these southern isolated areas prevented their spread northwards. High levels of endemism recorded in Spain and Sardinia suggest that the faunas of these regions originated during the Tertiary period and have remained substantially isolated. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 318–329.