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Classically, hypotheses concerning the distribution of species have been explored by evaluating the relationship between species richness and environmental variables using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. However, environmental and ecological data generally show spatial autocorrelation, thus violating the assumption of independently distributed errors. When spatial autocorrelation exists, an alternative is to use autoregressive models that assume spatially autocorrelated errors. We examined the relationship between mammalian species richness in South America and environmental variables, thereby evaluating the relative importance of four competing hypotheses to explain mammalian species richness. Additionally, we compared the results of ordinary least squares (OLS) regression and spatial autoregressive models using Conditional and Simultaneous Autoregressive (CAR and SAR, respectively) models. Variables associated with productivity were the most important at determining mammalian species richness at the scale analyzed. Whereas OLS residuals between species richness and environmental variables were strongly autocorrelated, those from autoregressive models showed less spatial autocorrelation, particularly the SAR model, indicating its suitability for these data. Autoregressive models also fit the data better than the OLS model (increasing R2 by 5–14%), and the relative importance of the explanatory variables shifted under CAR and SAR models. These analyses underscore the importance of controlling for spatial autocorrelation in biogeographical studies.