In the present study, we compare the genetic structure of a flooded forest tree Caryocar microcarpum and a terra firme forest tree Caryocar villosum in the lower Rio Negro region and test the hypothesis that the Rio Negro, the largest tributary on the left bank of the Amazon River, has been acting as a geographical barrier to gene flow between populations from the left and right banks. Seventeen adult individuals on the left bank and 27 on the right bank of Rio Negro were sampled for C. microcarpum, whereas 27 on the left and 20 on the right bank were sampled for C. villosum. Two chloroplast DNA regions were sequenced: the intron of trnL gene and the intergenic region between psbA and trnH genes; and all individuals were genotyped using ten microsatellite loci. The trnL intron and psbA-trnH intergenic spacer generated fragments of 459 bp and 424 bp, respectively. For C. microcarpum, six haplotypes were identified for trnL and seven for psbA-trnH. By contrast, only one haplotype was found for C. villosum for both sequences. The results obtained showed that the Rio Negro has not been a barrier to gene flow by pollen and seeds for either species. No genetic differentiation and a high migration rate between populations from the left and right banks of the Rio Negro were detected for the chloroplast sequences and nuclear microsatellites, for both C. villosum and C. microcarpum. Although the two analysed sequences showed a sharp topology difference, both indicated that multiple lineages may have contributed to the origin of C. microcarpum populations in the Rio Negro basin. Nevertheless, for C. villosum, from terra firme, the results obtained may provide evidence of a recent expansion of one maternal lineage from an ancient relic population surviving in one of the few moist forest refuges of the Guiana Shield during extended droughts of the glacial periods. We hypothesize that the contrasting environments colonized by this congener pair may have played an important role in shaping the genetic structure of both species. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 278–290.