Background: Dispersal rates, i.e. the effective number of dispersing individuals per unit time, are the product of dispersal capacity, i.e. a species physiological potential for dispersal, dispersal behaviour, i.e. the decision to leave a habitat patch in favour of another, and connectivity of occupied habitat. Dispersal of species that are highly specialised to a certain habitat is thus strongly limited by habitat availability. Additionally, species inhabiting very stable environments may adopt a sedentary life-style. Both factors should lead to strong genetic differentiation in highly specialised species inhabiting stable environments. These two factors apply to our model species Rhyacophila pubescens a highly specialised freshwater insect that occurs in tufa springs, a very stable habitat. Results: We examined the genetic population structure and phylogeography using range-wide mtCOI sequence and AFLP data from 333 individuals of R. pubescens. We inferred the location of Pleistocene refugia and postglacial colonisation routes of R. pubescens, and examined ongoing local differentiation. Our results indicate intraregional differentiation with a high number of locally endemic haplotypes, that we attributed to habitat specificity and low dispersal rates of R. pubescens. We observed high levels of genetic diversity south of the Alps and genetic impoverishment north of the Alps. Estimates of migrants placed the refugium and the source of the colonisation in the Dauphine Alps (SW Alps). Conclusions: This is the first example of an aquatic insect with a colonisation route along the western margin of the Alps to the Central European highlands. The study also shows that specialisation to a stable environment may have promoted a behavioural shift to decreased dispersal rates, leading to stronger local population differentiation than in less specialised aquatic insects. Alternatively, the occurrence of highly specialised tufa spring habitats may have been more widespread in the past, leading to range regression and fragmentation among present day R. pubescens populations.