Molecular analysis of two Australo–Papuan rainforest birds exhibiting correlated ‘leapfrog’ patterns were used to elucidate the evolutionary origin of this unusual pattern of geographical differentiation. In both sooty owls (Tyto) and logrunners (Orthonyx), phenotypically similar populations occupy widely disjunct areas (central–eastern Australia and upland New Guinea) with a third, highly distinctive population, occurring between them in northeastern Queensland. Two mechanisms have been proposed to explain the origin of leapfrog patterns in avian distributions: recent shared ancestry of terminal populations and unequal rates or phenotypic change among populations. As the former should generate correlated patterns of phenotypic and genetic differentiation, we tested for a sister relationship between populations from New Guinea and central–eastern Australia using nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences. The resulting phylogenies not only refute recent ancestry as an explanation for the leapfrog pattern, but provide evidence of vastly different spatio–temporal histories for sooty owls and logrunners within the Australo–Papuan rainforests. This incongruence indicates that the evolutionary processes responsible for generating leapfrog patterns in these co–distributed taxa are complex, possibly involving a combination of selection and drift in sooty owls and convergence or retention of ancestral characteristics in logrunners.