Abstract Background The Dscam gene in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, contains twenty-four exons, four of which are composed of tandem arrays that each undergo mutually exclusive alternative splicing (4, 6, 9 and 17), potentially generating 38,016 protein isoforms. This degree of transcript diversity has not been found in mammalian homologs of Dscam. We examined the molecular evolution of exons within this gene family to locate the point of divergence for this alternative splicing pattern. Results Using the fruit fly Dscam exons 4, 6, 9 and 17 as seed sequences, we iteratively searched sixteen genomes for homologs, and then performed phylogenetic analyses of the resulting sequences to examine their evolutionary history. We found homologs in the nematode, arthropod and vertebrate genomes, including homologs in several vertebrates where Dscam had not been previously annotated. Among these, only the arthropods contain homologs arranged in tandem arrays indicative of mutually exclusive splicing. We found no homologs to these exons within the Arabidopsis, yeast, tunicate or sea urchin genomes but homologs to several constitutive exons from fly Dscam were present within tunicate and sea urchin. Comparing the rate of turnover within the tandem arrays of the insect taxa (fruit fly, mosquito and honeybee), we found the variants within exons 4 and 17 are well conserved in number and spatial arrangement despite 248–283 million years of divergence. In contrast, the variants within exons 6 and 9 have undergone considerable turnover since these taxa diverged, as indicated by deeply branching taxon-specific lineages. Conclusion Our results suggest that at least one Dscam exon array may be an ancient duplication that predates the divergence of deuterostomes from protostomes but that there is no evidence for the presence of arrays in the common ancestor of vertebrates. The different patterns of conservation and turnover among the Dscam exon arrays provide a striking example of how a gene can evolve in a modular fashion rather than as a single unit.