The latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG) is arguably one of the most striking patterns in nature. The global increase in species richness toward the tropics across continents and taxonomic groups stimulated the formulation of many hypotheses to explain the underlying mechanisms of this pattern. We evaluated several of these hypotheses to explain spatial diversity patterns in the butterfly family, Nymphalidae, by assessing the contributions of speciation, extinction, and dispersal to the LDG, and also the extent to which these processes differ among regions at the same latitude. We generated a new, time-calibrated phylogeny of Nymphalidae based on 10 gene fragments and containing ca. 2,800 species (∼45% of extant diversity). Neither speciation nor extinction rate variations consistently explain the LDG among regions because temporal diversification dynamics differ greatly across longitude. For example, we found that Neotropical nymphalid diversity results from low extinction rates, not high speciation rates, and that biotic interchanges with other regions were rare. Southeast Asia was also characterized by a low speciation rate but, unlike the Neotropics, was the main source of dispersal events through time. Our results suggest that global climate change throughout the Cenozoic, particularly during the Eocene-Oligocene transition, combined with the conserved ancestral tropical niches, played a major role in generating the modern LDG of butterflies.