Recent decreases in biodiversity in Europe are commonly thought to be due to land use and climate change. However, the genetic diversity of populations is also seen as one essential factor for their fitness. Genetic diversity in species across the continent of Europe has been recognized as being in part a consequence of ice age isolation in southern refugia and postglacial colonization northwards, and these phylogeographical patterns may themselves affect the adaptability of populations. Recent work on butterfly species with different refugia, colonization paths and genetic structures allows this idea to be examined. The 'chalk-hill blue' pattern is one of decreasing genetic diversity from south to north, whereas the 'woodland ringlet' pattern shows greater genetic diversity in eastern than in western lineages. Comparison of population demographic trends in species with these biogeographical patterns reveals higher rates of decrease with lower genetic diversity. This indicates reduced adaptability due to genetic impoverishment as a result of glacial and postglacial range changes. Analysis of phylogeographical pattern may be a useful guide to interpreting demographic trends and in conservation planning.