Abstract Aim To analyse the worldwide distribution patterns of hagfishes using panbiogeographical track analysis, and to attempt to correlate these patterns with the tectonic history of the ocean basins. Location Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Method The distributions of 47 out of 70 species of hagfish (in the genera Eptatretus, Myxine, Nemamyxine, Neomyxine, and Paramyxine) were studied by the panbiogeographical method of track analysis. The analysis was performed using distributional data obtained from the collections included in the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS, http://www.iobis.org) and FishBase ( http://www.fishbase.org), with additional records from the literature. Individual tracks were obtained for each species by plotting localities and connecting them by minimum-spanning trees. Generalized tracks were determined from the spatial overlap between individual tracks. Results Six generalized tracks were found: in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, South-eastern Atlantic, Western Pacific, North-eastern Pacific and South-eastern Pacific. Main conclusions The distribution patterns of myxinids are marked by a high degree of endemism and vicariance, and are correlated with the tectonic features involved in many of the events that led to the development of oceanic basins. The main massing of the group is around the Pacific Basin. In the Atlantic Ocean, the distribution of Myxine glutinosa seems to correspond to a classic trans-oceanic track and vicariance resulting from the opening of the Atlantic Ocean during the Cretaceous. In the Pacific Ocean, the distribution of the Eptatretus and Paramyxine species is clearly associated with the margins of the Pacific tectonic plate. The generalized tracks of hagfishes are shared by several other groups of marine organisms, including many from shallow tropical waters, implying a common history for this marine biota. Overall, vicariance is a major feature of hagfish distribution, suggesting vicariant differentiation of widespread ancestors as a result of sea-floor spreading between continents in connection with ocean formation.