Altitudinal gradients offer valuable study systems to investigate how adaptive genetic diversity is distributed within and between natural populations and which factors promote or prevent adaptive differentiation. The environmental clines along altitudinal gradients tend to be steep relative to the dispersal distance of many organisms, providing an opportunity to study the joint effects of divergent natural selection and gene flow. Temperature is one variable showing consistent altitudinal changes, and altitudinal gradients can therefore provide spatial surrogates for some of the changes anticipated under climate change. Here, we investigate the extent and patterns of adaptive divergence in animal populations along altitudinal gradients by surveying the literature for (i) studies on phenotypic variation assessed under common garden or reciprocal transplant designs and (ii) studies looking for signatures of divergent selection at the molecular level. Phenotypic data show that significant between-population differences are common and taxonomically widespread, involving traits such as mass, wing size, tolerance to thermal extremes and melanization. Several lines of evidence suggest that some of the observed differences are adaptively relevant, but rigorous tests of local adaptation or the link between specific phenotypes and fitness are sorely lacking. Evidence for a role of altitudinal adaptation also exists for a number of candidate genes, most prominently haemoglobin, and for anonymous molecular markers. Novel genomic approaches may provide valuable tools for studying adaptive diversity, also in species that are not amenable to experimentation.