Neotropical tanagers known as flowerpiercers (Diglossa and Diglossopis) have a novel feeding adaptation, comprising a downward curved hook on the maxilla that allows these species to obtain floral nectar without pollination. Using mitochondrial DNA sequences, the phylogenetic relationships of all 18 species of flowerpiercers were studied for the first time. Strong support was found for the monophyly of flowerpiercers and for the monophyly of four superspecies within flowerpiercers. However, previously described species-groups, as well as the genus Diglossopis, are not monophyletic. The biogeographic origin of flowerpiercers was identified as Andean, with a single dispersal event from the northern Andes to Central America and a single dispersal event from the northern Andes to the tepuis. The first principal component, representing a contrast between hook size and bill size, was mapped onto the phylogeny to examine the evolution of relative hook size in the group. Across the phylogeny, a relatively large hook and a relatively small hook evolved multiple times in unrelated lineages, indicating lability in bill morphology. Differences in hook size among sympatric species, together with habitat partitioning and behavioural differences, can explain the coexistence of multiple species of flowerpiercers at the same locality. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 14–28.