Aim In a selected literature survey we reviewed studies on the habitat heterogeneity–animal species diversity relationship and evaluated whether there are uncertainties and biases in its empirical support.
Methods We reviewed 85 publications for the period 1960–2003. We screened each publication for terms that were used to define habitat heterogeneity, the animal species group and ecosystem studied, the definition of the structural variable, the measurement of vegetation structure and the temporal and spatial scale of the study.
Main conclusions The majority of studies found a positive correlation between habitat heterogeneity/diversity and animal species diversity. However, empirical support for this relationship is drastically biased towards studies of vertebrates and habitats under anthropogenic influence. In this paper, we show that ecological effects of habitat heterogeneity may vary considerably between species groups depending on whether structural attributes are perceived as heterogeneity or fragmentation. Possible effects may also vary relative to the structural variable measured. Based upon this, we introduce a classification framework that may be used for across-studies comparisons. Moreover, the effect of habitat heterogeneity for one species group may differ in relation to the spatial scale. In several studies, however, different species groups are closely linked to ‘keystone structures’ that determine animal species diversity by their presence. Detecting crucial keystone structures of the vegetation has profound implications for nature conservation and biodiversity management.