An inverse correlation between dispersal ability and genetic differentiation among populations of a species is frequently observed in the marine environment. We investigated the population genetic structure of the free-living marine nematode Pellioditis marina. A total of 426 bp of the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI) gene were surveyed on a geographical scale of approximately 100 km during spring 2003. Nematodes were collected from 2 coastal locations in Belgium, and from 2 estuaries and a saltwater lake (Lake Grevelingen) in The Netherlands. Molecular variation was assessed with the single-strand conformation polymorphism (SSCP) method. In total, 32 different haplotypes were observed, and sequence divergence among 452 individuals ranged from 0.2 to 10.6 We discovered 4 distinct mitochondrial lineages, with low divergences within the lineages (0.2 to 1.6 and high divergences between the lineages (5.1 to 10.6. The nuclear ribosomal ITS (internal transcribed spacer) region showed concordant phylogenetic patterns, suggesting that nematode species diversity may be considerably underestimated. Analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA) indicated a strong genetic differentiation among populations. The Lake Grevelingen population was clearly differentiated from all other populations, but genetic structuring was also significant within the Westerschelde and was correlated with gradients in salinity and pollution. The observed population genetic structure is in accordance with the limited active dispersal capacity of P. marina, but is at variance with its significant potential for passive dispersal. We therefore suggest that autecological characteristics, including short generation time, high colonization potential and local adaptation, may be at the basis of this nematode's population genetic structure.