1. We investigated the Pleistocene and Holocene history of the rare mayfly Ameletus inopinatus EATON 1887 (Ephemeroptera: Siphlonuridae) in Europe. We used A. inopinatus as a model species to explore the phylogeography of montane, cold-tolerant aquatic insects with arctic–alpine distributions.
2. Using species distribution models, we developed hypotheses about the species demographic history in Central Europe and the recolonisation history of Fennoscandia. We tested these hypotheses using mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase I (mtCOI) sequence data and compared our genetic results with previously generated microsatellite data to explore genetic diversity distributions of A. inopinatus.
3. We observed old lineages, deep splits and almost complete lineage sorting of mtCOI sequences among mountain ranges. These results support a periglacial survival, i.e. persistence at the periphery of Pleistocene glaciers in Central Europe.
4. There was strong differentiation between the Fennoscandian and all other populations, indicating that Fennoscandia was recolonised from a refugium not accounted for in our sampling. High degrees of population genetic structure within the northern samples suggest that Fennoscandia was recolonised by more than one lineage. However, this structure was not apparent in previously published microsatellite data, consistent with secondary contact without sexual incompatibility or with sex-biased dispersal.
5. Our demographic analyses indicate that (i) the separation of northern and Central European lineages occurred during the early Pleistocene; (ii) Central European populations have persisted independently throughout the Pleistocene and (iii) the species extended its range about 150 000 years ago.