1. The aim of this paper is to review literature on species diversity patterns of freshwater organisms and underlying mechanisms at large spatial scales.
2. Some freshwater taxa (e.g. dragonflies, fish and frogs) follow the classical latitudinal decline in regional species richness (RSR), supporting the patterns found for major terrestrial and marine organism groups. However, the mechanisms causing this cline in most freshwater taxa are inadequately understood, although research on fish suggests that energy and history are major factors underlying the patterns in total species and endemic species richness. Recent research also suggests that not all freshwater taxa comply with the decline of species richness with latitude (e.g. stoneflies, caddisflies and salamanders), but many taxa show more complex geographical patterns in across-regions analyses. These complexities are even more profound when studies of global, continental and regional extents are compared. For example, clear latitudinal gradients may be present in regional studies but absent in global studies (e.g. macrophytes).
3. Latitudinal gradients are often especially weak in the across-ecosystems analyses, which may be attributed to local factors overriding the effects of large-scale factors on local communities. Nevertheless, local species richness (LSR) is typically linearly related to RSR (suggesting regional effects on local diversity), although saturating relationships have also been found in some occasions (suggesting strong local effects on diversity). Nestedness has often been found to be significant in freshwater studies, yet this pattern is highly variable and generally weak, suggesting also a strong beta diversity component in freshwater systems.
4. Both geographical location and local environmental factors contribute to variation in alpha diversity, nestedness and beta diversity in the freshwater realm, although the relative importance of these two groups of explanatory variables may be contingent on the spatial extent of the study. The mechanisms associated with spatial and environmental control of community structure have also been inferred in a number of studies, and most support has been found for species sorting (possibly because many freshwater studies have species sorting as their starting point), although also dispersal limitation and mass effects may be contributing to the patterns found.
5. The lack of latitudinal gradients in some freshwater taxa begs for further explanations. Such explanations may not be gained for most freshwater taxa in the near future, however, because we lack species-level information, floristic and faunistic knowledge, and standardised surveys along extensive latitudinal gradients. A challenge for macroecology is thus to use the best possible species-level information on well-understood groups (e.g. fish) or use surrogates for species-level patterns (e.g. families) and then develop hypotheses for further testing in the freshwater realm. An additional research challenge concerns understanding patterns and mechanisms associated with the relationships between alpha, beta and gamma components of species diversity.
6. Understanding the mechanistic basis of species diversity patterns should preferably be based on a combination of large-scale macroecological and landscape-scale metacommunity research. Such a research approach will help in elucidating patterns of species diversity across regional and local scales in the freshwater realm.