1. Structure and diversity of the macroinvertebrate fauna were studied in relation to altitude and latitude among three groups of streams from Ecuador (lowland: 100–600 m, Central Valley: 2600–3100 m, páramo: 3500–4000 m), and one group from the temperate lowland region of Denmark. The streams in the four regions were comparable with regard to physical characteristics such as size, current and substratum.
2. In terms of faunal composition the Ecuadorian highland streams bore more resemblance to the Danish lowland streams than the Ecuadorian lowland streams. The greater similarity between the Ecuadorian highland and the Danish streams, however, was due to the large number of insect families in the Ecuadorian lowlands, many of which were not found in the other regions. Of ten physico-chemical parameters measured, maximum stream temperature explained by far the most variability in faunal composition.
3. The number of insect orders and families increased linearly with maximum stream temperature and therefore decreased with altitude and latitude. A compilation of literature data on insect richness and maximum water temperature from streams around the world confirmed this pattern, yielding a common linear relation for both temperate and tropical streams. This pattern may arise due to a direct temperature effect on speciation but is probably also related to geological history and the influence of climatic changes on stream ecosystems. We estimate that small, tropical, lowland streams have, on average, a two- to fourfold higher species richness than temperate lowland streams.