Background Genetic breaks separating regional lineages of marine organisms with potentially high broadcasting abilities are generally attributed either to dispersal barriers such as currents or upwelling, or to behavioural strategies promoting self-recruitment. We investigated whether such patterns could potentially also be explained by adaptations to different environmental conditions by studying two morphologically distinguishable genetic lineages of the estuarine mudprawn Upogebia africana across a biogeographic disjunction in south-eastern Africa. The study area encompasses a transition between temperate and subtropical biotas, where the warm, southward-flowing Agulhas Current is deflected away from the coast, and its inshore edge is characterised by intermittent upwelling. To determine how this phylogeographic break is maintained, we estimated gene flow among populations in the region, tested for isolation by distance as an indication of larval retention, and reared larvae of the temperate and subtropical lineages at a range of different temperatures. Results Of four populations sampled, the two northernmost exclusively included the subtropical lineage, a central population had a mixture of both lineages, and the southernmost estuary had only haplotypes of the temperate lineage. No evidence was found for isolation by distance, and gene flow was bidirectional and of similar magnitude among adjacent populations. In both lineages, the optimum temperature for larval development was at about 23°C, but a clear difference was found at lower temperatures. While larvae of the temperate lineage could complete development at temperatures as low as 12°C, those of the subtropical lineage did not complete development below 17°C. Conclusion The results indicate that both southward dispersal of the subtropical lineage inshore of the Agulhas Current, and its establishment in the temperate province, may be limited primarily by low water temperatures. There is no evidence that the larvae of the temperate lineage would survive less well in the subtropical province than in their native habitat, and their exclusion from this region may be due to a combination of upwelling, short larval duration with limited dispersal potential near the coast, plus transport away from the coast of larvae that become entrained in the Agulhas Current. This study shows how methods from different fields of research (genetics, physiology, oceanography and morphology) can be combined to study phylogeographic patterns.