Recent studies show that soil eukaryotic diversity is immense and dominated by micro-organisms. However, it is unclear to what extent the processes that shape the distribution of diversity in plants and animals also apply to micro-organisms. Major diversification events in multicellular organisms have often been attributed to long-term climatic and geological processes, but the impact of such processes on protist diversity has received much less attention as their distribution has often been believed to be largely cosmopolitan. Here, we quantified phylogeographical patterns in Hyalosphenia papilio, a large testate amoeba restricted to Holarctic Sphagnum-dominated peatlands, to test if the current distribution of its genetic diversity can be explained by historical factors or by the current distribution of suitable habitats. Phylogenetic diversity was higher in Western North America, corresponding to the inferred geographical origin of the H. papilio complex, and was lower in Eurasia despite extensive suitable habitats. These results suggest that patterns of phylogenetic diversity and distribution can be explained by the history of Holarctic Sphagnum peatland range expansions and contractions in response to Quaternary glaciations that promoted cladogenetic range evolution, rather than the contemporary distribution of suitable habitats. Species distributions were positively correlated with climatic niche breadth, suggesting that climatic tolerance is key to dispersal ability in H. papilio. This implies that, at least for large and specialized terrestrial micro-organisms, propagule dispersal is slow enough that historical processes may contribute to their diversification and phylogeographical patterns and may partly explain their very high overall diversity.