Abstract Aim To examine butterfly species richness gradients in seven regions/countries and to quantify geographic mean root distance (MRD) patterns. My primary goal is to determine the extent to which an explanation for butterfly richness patterns based on tropical niche conservatism and the evolution of cold tolerance, proposed for the fauna of Canada and the USA, applies to other parts of the world. Location USA/Canada, Mexico, Europe/NW Africa, Transbaikal Siberia, Chile, South Africa and Australia. Methods Digitized range maps for butterfly species in each region were used to map richness patterns in summer (for all areas) and winter (for USA/Canada, Europe/NW Africa and Australia). A phylogeny resolved to subfamily was used to map the geographic MRD patterns. Regression trees and general linear models examined climatic and vegetation correlates of species richness and MRD within and among regions. Results Various combinations of climate and vegetation were strong predictors of species richness gradients within regions, but unresolved ‘regional’ factors contributed to the multiregional pattern. Regionally based differences in phylogenetic structure also exist, but MRD is negatively correlated with temperature both within and across areas. MRD patterns consistent with tropical niche conservatism occur in most areas. With a possible partial exception of Mexico, faunas in cold climates and in mountains are more derived than faunas in lowlands and tropical/subtropical climates. In USA/Canada, Europe and Australia, winter faunas are more derived than summer faunas. Main conclusions The phylogenetic pattern previously found in the USA and Canada is widespread in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and niche conservatism and the evolution of cold tolerance is the likely explanation for the development of the global butterfly species richness gradient over evolutionary time. Contemporary climate also influences species richness patterns but is unlikely to be a complete explanation globally. The importance of climate is also manifested in the seasonal loss of more basal butterfly elements outside the tropics in winter.