- Background Natural populations of the tetraploid wild emmer wheat (genome AABB) were previously shown to demonstrate eco-geographically structured genetic and epigenetic diversity. Transposable elements (TEs) might make up a significant part of the genetic and epigenetic variation between individuals and populations because they comprise over 80% of the wild emmer wheat genome. In this study, we performed detailed analyses to assess the dynamics of transposable elements in 50 accessions of wild emmer wheat collected from 5 geographically isolated sites. The analyses included: the copy number variation of TEs among accessions in the five populations, population-unique insertional patterns, and the impact of population-unique/specific TE insertions on structure and expression of genes. Results We assessed the copy numbers of 12 TE families using real-time quantitative PCR, and found significant copy number variation (CNV) in the 50 wild emmer wheat accessions, in a population-specific manner. In some cases, the CNV difference reached up to 6-fold. However, the CNV was TE-specific, namely some TE families showed higher copy numbers in one or more populations, and other TE families showed lower copy numbers in the same population(s). Furthermore, we assessed the insertional patterns of 6 TE families using transposon display (TD), and observed significant population-specific insertional patterns. The polymorphism levels of TE-insertional patterns reached 92% among all wild emmer wheat accessions, in some cases. In addition, we observed population-specific/unique TE insertions, some of which were located within or close to protein-coding genes, creating allelic variations in a population-specific manner. We also showed that those genes are differentially expressed in wild emmer wheat. Conclusions For the first time, this study shows that TEs proliferate in wild emmer wheat in a population-specific manner, creating new alleles of genes, which contribute to the divergent evolution of homeologous genes from the A and B subgenomes. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (10.1186/s12870-017-1134-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.