In the present study, mitochondrial (mt)DNA sequence data were used to examine the genetic structure of fire-eye antbirds (genus Pyriglena) along the Atlantic Forest and the predictions derived from the river hypothesis and from a Last Glacial Maximum Pleistocene refuge paleomodel were compared to explain the patterns of genetic variation observed in these populations. A total of 266 individuals from 45 populations were sampled over a latitudinal transect and a number of phylogeographical and population genetics analytical approaches were employed to address these questions. The pattern of mtDNA variation observed in fire-eye antbirds provides little support for the view that populations were isolated by the modern course of major Atlantic Forest rivers. Instead, the data provide stronger support for the predictions of the refuge model. These results add to the mounting evidence that climatic oscillations appear to have played a substantial role in shaping the phylogeographical structure and possibly the diversification of many taxa in this region. However, the results also illustrate the potential for more complex climatic history and historical changes in the geographical distribution of Atlantic Forest than envisioned by the refuge model. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 900–824.