The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is one of the world's major biodiversity hotspots and is threatened by a severe habitat loss. Yet little is known about the processes that originated its remarkable richness of endemic species. Here we present results of a large-scale survey of the genetic variation at the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene of the pitviper, jararaca lancehead (Bothrops jararaca), and two closely related insular species (Bothrops insularis and Bothrops alcatraz), endemic of this region. Phylogenetic and network analyses revealed the existence of two well-supported clades, exhibiting a southern and a northern distribution. The divergence time of these two phylogroups was estimated at 3.8 million years ago, in the Pliocene, a period of intense climatic changes and frequent fragmentation of the tropical rainforest. Our data also suggest that the two groups underwent a large size expansion between 50 000 and 100 000 years ago. However, the southern group showed a more marked signal of population size fluctuation than the northern group, corroborating evidences that southern forests may have suffered a more pronounced reduction in area in the late Pleistocene. The insular species B. alcatraz and B. insularis presented very low diversity, each one sharing haplotypes with mainland individuals placed in different subclades. Despite their marked morphological and behavioural uniqueness, these two insular species seem to have originated very recently and most likely from distinct costal B. jararaca populations, possibly associated with late Pleistocene or Holocene sea level fluctuations.