For over 150 years, ecologists have been striving to explain fundamental patterns of biological diversity, such as the observation that communities invariably consist of common and rare species, and to unravel the processes that underpin these patterns. This task is increasingly urgent given the accelerating loss of biological diversity. Although fishes are the most diverse vertebrate taxon and fish communities occur in a wide range of habitats, they have been relatively little studied in the quest to elucidate the processes that shape patterns of biological diversity. Here, some of the topics that investigations of fish assemblages can illuminate are highlighted. These include the characteristics of ecological communities and the role that dispersal limitation plays in structuring them, the distinction between core and occasional species, the insights that evaluating abundance in different currencies can bring and the assessment of community capacity. Questions are identified that future investigations of fish communities might tackle and a case study of a biodiverse ecoregion (Thailand and Peninsula Malaysia) is used to illustrate the need for better links between these ecological questions and effective conservation practice.