Mauremys leprosa, distributed in Iberia and North-west Africa, contains two major clades of mtDNA haplotypes. Clade A occurs in Portugal, Spain and Morocco north of the Atlas Mountains. Clade B occurs south of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and north of the Atlas Mountains in eastern Algeria and Tunisia. However, we recorded a single individual containing a clade B haplotype in Morocco from north of the Atlas Mountains. This could indicate gene flow between both clades. The phylogenetically most distinct clade A haplotypes are confined to Morocco, suggesting both clades originated in North Africa. Extensive diversity within clade A in south-western Iberia argues for a glacial refuge located there. Other regions of the Iberian Peninsula, displaying distinctly lower haplotype diversities, were recolonized from within south-western Iberia. Most populations in Portugal, Spain and northern Morocco contain the most common clade A haplotype, indicating dispersal from the south-western Iberian refuge, gene flow across the Strait of Gibraltar, and reinvasion of Morocco by terrapins originating in south-western Iberia. This hypothesis is consistent with demographic analyses, suggesting rapid clade A population increase while clade B is represented by stationary, fragmented populations. We recommend the eight, morphologically weakly diagnosable, subspecies of M. leprosa be reduced to two, reflecting major mtDNA clades: Mauremys l. leprosa (Iberian Peninsula and northern Morocco) and M. l. saharica (southern Morocco, eastern Algeria and Tunisia). Peripheral populations could play an important role in evolution of M. leprosa because we found endemic haplotypes in populations along the northern and southern range borders. Previous investigations in another western Palearctic freshwater turtle (Emys orbicularis) discovered similar differentiation of peripheral populations, and phylogeographies of Emys orbicularis and Mauremys rivulata underline the barrier status of mountain chains, in contrast to sea straits, suggesting common patterns for western Palearctic freshwater turtles.