1. Despite the growing view that biodiversity provides a unifying theme in river ecology, global perspectives on richness in riverine landscapes are limited. As a result, there is little theory or quantitative data on features that might have influenced global patterns in riverine richness, nor are there clear indications of which riverine landscapes are important to conservation at the global scale. As conspicuous elements of the vertebrate fauna of riverine landscapes, we mapped the global distributions of all of the world's specialist riverine birds and assessed their richness in relation to latitude, altitude, primary productivity and geomorphological complexity (surface configuration).
2. Specialist riverine birds, typical of high-energy riverine landscapes and dependent wholly or partly on production from river ecosystems, occur in 16 families. They are represented by an estimated 60 species divided equally between the passerines and non-passerines. Major radiation has occurred among different families on different continents, indicating that birds have evolved several times into the niches provided by riverine landscapes.
3. Continental richness varies from four species in Europe to 28 in Asia, with richness on the latter continent disproportionately larger than would be expected from a random distribution with respect to land area. Richness is greatest in mountainous regions at latitudes of 20–40°N in the riverine landscapes of the Himalayan mountains, where 13 species overlap in range.
4. Family, genus and species richness in specialist riverine birds all increase significantly with productivity and surface configuration (i.e. relief). However, family richness was the best single predictor of the numbers of species or genera. In keeping with the effect of surface configuration, river-bird richness peaks globally at 1300–1400 m altitude, and most species occur typically on small, fast rivers where they feed predominantly on invertebrates. Increased lengths of such streams in areas of high relief and rainfall might have been responsible for species–area effects.
5. We propose the hypothesis that the diversity in channel forms and habitats in riverine landscapes, in addition to high temperature and primary productivity, have been prerequisites to the development of global patterns in the richness of specialist riverine organisms. We advocate tests of this hypothesis in other taxonomic groups. We draw attention, however, to the challenges of categorically defining riverine organisms in such tests because (i) rivers grade into many other habitat types across several different ecotones and (ii) `terrestrialisation' processes in riverine landscapes means that they offer habitat for organisms whose evolutionary origins are not exclusively riverine.