Molecular variation in Antitrichia curtipendula (Hedw.) Brid. s.l. was studied based on the nuclear internal transcribed spacer (ITS) and the chloroplast markers trnL-trnF and rpl16, and analysed by neighbour joining (for ITS; recombination present), maximum parsimony (chloroplast markers) and TCS (haplotype network). Old World plus E North American populations belong to a different lineage than those of W North America. These are molecularly well differentiated and are treated as A. curtipendula and A. gigantea (Sull. & Lesq.) Kindb. Two distinct groups of Old World haplotypes are separated by one ‘missing’ haplotype and are interpreted as cryptic species. Tropical African populations share one ITS deletion and form a lineage within one of the cryptic species. Molecular variation within A. gigantea, within each of the two cryptic Old World plus E North American (except tropical African) haplotype groups, and among tropical African populations are of similar magnitude, suggesting that analogous mechanisms and similar time spans explain the found variation. Events related to Pleistocene climatic oscillations are suggested as having caused this differentiation within each group, whereas the African lineage was probably split off before this. Identical tRNA-Gly sequences were found in 33 specimens; new primers were designed for rpl16 and ITS 1+2. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 156, 341–354.