1. Methods that assess patterns of phylogenetic relatedness, as well as character distribution and evolution, allow one to infer the ecological processes involved in community assembly. Assuming niche conservatism, assemblages should shift from phylogenetic clustering to evenness with decreasing geographic scale because the relative importance of mechanisms that shape assemblages is hypothesized to be scale-dependent. Whereas habitat filtering is more likely to act at regional scales because of increased habitat heterogeneity that allows sorting of ecologically similar species in contrasting environments, competition is more likely to act at local scales because low habitat heterogeneity provides few opportunities for niche partitioning.
2. We used species lists to assess assemblage composition, data on ecologically-relevant traits, and a molecular phylogeny, to examine the phylogenetic structure of antbird (Thamnophilidae) assemblages at three different geographical scales: regional (ecoregions), intermediate (100-ha plots) and local (mixed-flocks). In addition, we used patterns of phylogenetic beta diversity and beta diversity to separate the factors that structure antbird assemblages at regional scales.
3. Contrary to previous findings, we found a shift from phylogenetic evenness to clustering with decreasing geographical scale. We argue that this does not reject the hypothesis that habitat filtering is the predominant force in regional community assembly, because analyses of trait evolution and structure indicated a lack of niche conservatism in antbirds.
4. In some cases, phylogenetic evenness at regional scales can be an effect of historical biogeographic processes instead of niche-based processes. However, regional patterns of beta diversity and phylogenetic beta diversity suggested that phylogenetic structure in our study cannot be explained by the history of speciation and dispersal of antbirds, further supporting the habitat-filtering hypothesis.
5. Our analyses suggested that competitive interactions might not play an important role locally, which would provide a plausible explanation for the high alpha diversity of antbirds in Amazonia.
6. Finally, we emphasize the importance of including trait information in studies of phylogenetic community structure to adequately assess the mechanisms that determine species co-existence.