Species distributions and their patterns in geographical space have been studied for several decades and explained by theories such as Janzen's, with respect to the nature of dispersal barriers in the Tropics, and Rapoport's, with respect to range size. However, the roles of specific environmental and geographical factors (e.g. ecological niche breadth, geographical barriers, etc.) in shaping species ranges and distributional patterns remain largely unexplored. The present study analyzed predictions from these two theories via analysis of virtual species with respect to biogeographical patterns: virtual species were created across South America, covering all major environments on the continent, and were used to compare effects of niche breadth, environmental availability, connectivity, seasonality, and the presence of known biogeographical barriers (rivers) in shaping species distributions and biodiversity patterns. Geographical ranges varied from narrow to broad, depending on the location of the seed point when comparing species produced with the same niche breadth. Analysis without consideration of seasonality and barriers produced species with broader distributions in the Tropics and narrower distributions in montane and temperate regions of the continent. When seasonality was included, however, broader ranges were concentrated in temperate regions, thus supporting Janzen's idea. Rapoport's rule of broader geographical ranges at higher latitudes was supported only when seasonality and physical barriers were included but not in species with very narrow or very broad niches, suggesting that this ‘rule’ results from interactions among niche breadth, dispersal capabilities, and dispersal barriers. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 108, 241–250.