The European bitterling is considered to be a native species over much of its present range in Europe. A dramatic decline in its abundance from 1960 to 1980 in west and central Europe, attributed to aquatic pollution, led to the establishment of stringent national and international regulations for protection of the species. Here, we review the evidence that until AD 1100 the bitterling was restricted to the Ponto-Caspian and Aegean regions (south-eastern Europe and adjacent regions of Asia Minor) and only expanded into its present range during the 19th century. The earliest records of bitterling in west and central Europe are from regions where carp cultivation was common and the bitterling appears to have spread into this region in association with the gradual expansion of carp cultivation. After an initial period of expansion, between approximately 1150 and 1560 in regions with carp cultivation, the species virtually disappeared from Europe during the coldest period of the Little Ice Age. Bitterling reappeared at the end of the 18th century, initially in historical centres of carp cultivation, and was again abundant and widespread in Europe by around 1850. Its reappearance appears to have been through expansion of refuge populations as well as new invasions. The decline in abundance of bitterling during the period 1960–80 in west and central Europe appears not only to have been caused by pollution, as is generally believed, but may also be correlated with low spring temperatures. From approximately 1980 onwards the European bitterling once again expanded its distribution in many parts of Europe, particularly in eastern Europe. This recent expansion may be due to a combination of factors, including a rise in ambient temperature coupled with an increase in anthropogenic dispersal and changes to aquatic habitats favourable to bitterling. Thus, the bitterling, which is legally protected in Europe at a national and international level as an endangered indigenous species, is actually an invasive species and a parasite of freshwater mussels. Its current expansion in distribution could pose a hazard to freshwater mussel populations in regions where they are already threatened.