Background The amphipod crustacean Palmorchestia hypogaea occurs only in La Palma (Canary Islands) and is one of the few terrestrial amphipods in the world that have adapted to a strictly troglobitic life in volcanic cave habitats. A surface-dwelling closely related species (Palmorchestia epigaea) lives in the humid laurel forest on the same island. Previous studies have suggested that an ancestral littoral Orchestia species colonized the humid forests of La Palma and that subsequent drought episodes in the Canaries reduced the distribution of P. epigaea favouring the colonization of lava tubes through an adaptive shift. This was followed by dispersal via the hypogean crevicular system. Results P. hypogaea and P. epigaea did not form reciprocally monophyletic mitochondrial DNA clades. They showed geographically highly structured and genetically divergent populations with current gene flow limited to geographically close surface locations. Coalescence times using Bayesian estimations assuming a non-correlated relaxed clock with a normal prior distribution of the age of La Palma, together with the lack of association of habitat type with ancestral and recent haplotypes, suggest that their adaptation to cave life is relatively ancient. Conclusion The data gathered here provide evidence for multiple invasions of the volcanic cave systems that have acted as refuges. A re-evaluation of the taxonomic status of the extant species of Palmorchestia is needed, as the division of the two species by habitat and ecology is unnatural. The information obtained here, and that from previous studies on hypogean fauna, shows the importance of factors such as the uncoupling of morphological and genetic evolution, the role of climatic change and regressive evolution as key processes in leading to subterranean biodiversity.