Cave animals have historically attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists because of their bizarre 'regressive' characters and convergent evolution. However, understanding of their biogeographic and evolutionary history, including mechanisms of speciation, has remained elusive. In the last decade, molecular data have been obtained for subterranean taxa and their surface relatives, which have allowed some of the classical debates on the evolution of cave fauna to be revisited. Here, we review some of the major studies, focusing on the contribution of phylogeography in the following areas: biogeographic history and the relative roles of dispersal and vicariance, colonization history, cryptic species diversity and modes of speciation of cave animals. We further consider the limitations of current research and prospects for the future. Phylogeographic studies have confirmed that cave species are often cryptic, with highly restricted distributions, but have also shown that their divergence and potential speciation may occur despite the presence of gene flow from surface populations. Significantly, phylogeographic studies have provided evidence for speciation and adaptive evolution within the confines of cave environments, questioning the assumption that cave species evolved directly from surface ancestors. Recent technical developments involving 'next generation' DNA sequencing and theoretical developments in coalescent and population modelling are likely to revolutionize the field further, particularly in the study of speciation and the genetic basis of adaptation and convergent evolution within subterranean habitats. In summary, phylogeographic studies have provided an unprecedented insight into the evolution of these unique fauna, and the future of the field should be inspiring and data rich. © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.