Modern climate change is producing poleward range shifts of numerous taxa, communities and ecosystems worldwide. The response of species to changing environments is likely to be determined largely by population responses at range margins. In contrast to the expanding edge, the low-latitude limit (rear edge) of species ranges remains understudied, and the critical importance of rear edge populations as long-term stores of species’ genetic diversity and foci of speciation has been little acknowledged. We review recent findings from the fossil record, phylogeography and ecology to illustrate that rear edge populations are often disproportionately important for the survival and evolution of biota. Their ecological features, dynamics and conservation requirements differ from those of populations in other parts of the range, and some commonly recommended conservation practices might therefore be of little use or even counterproductive for rear edge populations.