Abstract Aim The global distribution of the European species of Melanelia Essl. (Lichenes: Parmeliaceae) was investigated in order to understand their distribution patterns against the background of ecogeographical and historical factors. Location The location of the study is global, with a local emphasis on Europe. Methods Geographical distribution and ecology of the species were investigated on the basis of herbarium studies and data from the literature as well as field observations. Distribution maps were created with ArcView GIS. The distribution patterns are expressed as three-dimensional ‘areal formulas’, regarding zonal distribution, altitudinal range and oceanicity, using a previously described method. The observed distribution patterns are discussed on the basis of their analogies with vascular plants and with respect to the ecogeographical vs. historical factors reflected by them. Results With the exception of one species that is endemic to Europe, all species studied occur in both northern continents. A number of species have tropical-alpine outposts, and two species occur also in extratropical zones of the southern hemisphere. Arctic and boreal distributions are circumpolar, while in the southern holarctic zones an affinity to the western sides of both northern continents is frequent. Main conclusions The distribution patterns appear to be mainly determined by contemporary ecogeographical factors. Most species probably have largely filled their potential distribution, at least within the Holarctic. Thus, the geographical origin and dispersal history of a species cannot reliably be reconstructed; they can be dissimilar in different species with similar distributions.