The vicũa (Vicugna vicugna; Miller, 1924) is a conservation success story, having recovered from near extinction in the 1960s to current population levels estimated at 275 000. However, lack of information about its demographic history and genetic diversity has limited both our understanding of its recovery and the development of science-based conservation measures. To examine the evolution and recent demographic history of the vicũa across its current range and to assess its genetic variation and population structure, we sequenced mitochondrial DNA from the control region (CR) for 261 individuals from 29 populations across Peru, Chile and Argentina. Our results suggest that populations currently designated as Vicugna vicugna vicugna and Vicugna vicugna mensalis comprise separate mitochondrial lineages. The current population distribution appears to be the result of a recent demographic expansion associated with the last major glacial event of the Pleistocene in the northern (18 to 22°S) dry Andes 14-12 000 years ago and the establishment of an extremely arid belt known as the 'Dry Diagonal' to 29°S. Within the Dry Diagonal, small populations of V. v. vicugna appear to have survived showing the genetic signature of demographic isolation, whereas to the north V. v. mensalis populations underwent a rapid demographic expansion before recent anthropogenic impacts. © 2007 Nature Publishing Group All rights reserved.