In this study, the mtDNA COI genes of 124 individuals in Brachionus calyciflorus complex were sequenced and analyzed. Overall, 84 mtDNA haplotypes were defined, and were split into three clades by the phylogenetic trees. The divergences of COI gene sequence among the three clades ranged from 11.4 to 22.5%, indicating the occurrence of three cryptic species (cryptic species 1, cryptic species 2, and cryptic species 3). Within cryptic species 3, a remarkable degree of differentiation (F st = 0.0947) might be attributable to habitat fragmentation, restricted gene flow, and founder effect, most probably together with local adaptation. The more shared haplotypes were observed, and a non-significant correlation existed between geographic and genetic distance, suggesting that some ancestral haplotypes might be involved in a past range expansion, and as founders give a similar distribution pattern among geographic populations. The networks were also in agreement with the pattern of genetic differentiation in B. calyciflorus species complex revealed by molecular phylogeny. The nested clade analysis suggested a slight geographic structure in the network I, network II, and the highest nesting clade levels within the network III. Under the possible effect of the Younger Dryas Event, the three cryptic species might have survived in multiple relict refugia throughout the south of China. The co-occurrence of cryptic species 2 and 3 might be found in Guangzhou and Hainan due to the possible interference of the barrier and contiguous range expansion. After the Younger Dryas Event, cryptic species 3 with high colonization ability might have arrived and colonized whole habitats at first, and reduce effective gene flow among cryptic species, thus effectively increasing persistence of founder events. Cryptic species 2 might, respectively, have expanded their ranges into Wuhu and Nanjing regions only because of the probable barrier of the Yangtze River, its weak colonization abilities and the ‘priority effects’ of cryptic species 3. Cryptic species 1 distributed exclusively in Danzhou probably failed to expand its ranges into mainland China because of small population size, weaker dispersal capacity, and the barrier of the Qiongzhou Strait.