We present phylogenetic relationships and phylogeographic patterns of the two species of bulldog bats, genus Noctilio. Using a comprehensive sampling of 118 individuals throughout the species distribution, we investigated the distribution of molecular variation in one nuclear and two mitochondrial markers. Phylogenetic trees do not recover Noctilio albiventris as a monophyletic group and point to three similar-age intraspecific genetic lineages, suggesting cryptic diversity in this taxon. These lineages correspond to the subspecies previously proposed, and are strongly associated with major river basins in South America. Analyses also suggest a very recent origin for the fishing bat Noctilio leporinus, which probably originates from N. albiventris, with a population expansion corresponding to its invasion in South America. Based on our analysis, the speciation event was dated in the Pleistocene epoch and seems to be associated with the variation of the sea level in the Caribbean islands. The present work indicates how phylogeographic studies support the identification of independent evolutionary lineages, driving new systematic/taxonomic investigations, while at the same time shed light on the role of the Caribbean in shaping Neotropical bat fauna diversity. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.