The Aphelocoma jays have become an important touchstone in behavioural ecology and biogeography – the corpus of studies of this genus makes it an important point of reference. Aphelocoma evolutionary history, nevertheless, has been the subject of two papers reaching opposite conclusions, even though they were based on the same allozyme data set. Herein, we present a second molecular data set – 500 bases of the ND2 gene – and analyse it cladistically to arrive at a new hypothesis of phylogenetic relationships. Recent hypotheses by other investigators of a hybrid origin of Aphelocoma populations are strongly contradicted. The ecological context within which these evolutionary processes are taking place is characterized using new tools for modelling ecological niches of species along a spectrum from humid tropical to dry temperate habitats. Evolutionary patterns of ecological niches are shown to consist of drastic departures from rate-uniformity and ecological niche conservatism. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 80, 369–383.