Understanding spatial variation in abundance is essential for forecasts of responses to environmental change impacts on diversity and the consequent conservation actions. However, few studies have sought to distinguish the causal basis of abundance structure and range limits. Here we do so for an invasive springtail species, Pogonognathellus flavescens, in a cold temperate island setting. Local microclimate variables and physiological tolerances of this habitat generalist suggest that it should be widely distributed across a range of habitats below 200 m elevation on the island. By contrast, island-wide and local abundance surveys show that it is restricted to indigenous Poa cookii tussock grassland habitats in the southeast. Preference for this habitat is correlated with the presence of vertebrates and a threshold response to soil Ca and pH, with preference for low values of both. Habitat specificity may be the consequence of a founder effect because the species is characterized by only a single mitochondrial COI haplotype. Nonetheless, P. flavescens is absent from many other areas of suitable P. cookii habitat around the island. The most plausible explanation appears to be dispersal limitation (i.e. a contingent absence). Despite high locomotion speeds measured in the laboratory at optimum and mean annual soil temperatures (0.97 and 0.42 cm s−1 at 26°C and 6.5°C, respectively), dispersal in the field indicated that >100 yr would be required to reach all available habitat in the absence of jump dispersal, for which few vectors exist. Thus, current range limits are set by dispersal limitation (i.e. contingent absences) whilst abundance structure is a function of variation in soil substrate quality. Edaphic variables both in this species and other soil invertebrates may be more significant than climatic factors in determining abundance and occurrence, indicating that they should be routinely included in species distribution models. Low genetic diversity and high habitat preference suggest that in the absence of introduction of additional individuals, the species will not spread rapidly at the island. However, over time, the widening distribution of its preferred habitat, P. cookii, as a consequence of a major management intervention (the eradication of feral cats), may enable it to colonize all suitable areas.