Aim We propose a phylogenetic hypothesis for the marine-derived sciaenid genus Plagioscion in the context of geomorphology and adaptation to freshwaters of South America, and assess the extent to which contemporary freshwater hydrochemical gradients influence diversification within a widely distributed Plagioscion species, Plagioscion squamosissimus. Location Amazon Basin and South America. Methods Using nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data, phylogenetic analyses were conducted on the five nominal Plagioscion species, together with representatives from Pachyurus and Pachypops, using character and model-based methods. Genealogical relationships and population genetic structure of 152 P. squamosissimus specimens sampled from the five major rivers and three hydrochemical settings/'colours' (i.e. white, black and clear water) of the Amazon Basin were assessed. Results Phylogenetic analyses support the monophyly of Plagioscion in South America and identify two putative cryptic species of Plagioscion. Divergence estimates suggest that the Plagioscion ancestor invaded South America via a northern route during the late Oligocene to early Miocene. Within P. squamosissimus a strong association of haplotype and water colour was observed, together with significant population structure detected between water colours. Main conclusions Our analyses of Plagioscion are consistent with a biogeographic scenario of early Miocene marine incursions into South America. Based on our phylogenetic results, the fossil record, geomorphological history and distributional data of extant Plagioscion species, we propose that marine incursions into western Venezuela between the late Oligocene and early Miocene were responsible for the adaptation to freshwaters in Plagioscion species. Following the termination of the marine incursions during the late Miocene and the establishment of the modern Amazon River, Plagioscion experienced a rapid diversification. Plagioscion squamosissimus arose during that time. The formation of the Amazon River probably facilitated population and range expansions for this species. Further, the large-scale hydrochemical gradients within the Amazon Basin appear to be acting as ecological barriers maintaining population discontinuities in P. squamosissimus even in the face of gene flow. Our results highlight the importance of divergent natural selection through time in the generation and maintenance of sciaenid diversity in Amazonia.