Coexistence mechanisms that require environmental variation to operate contribute importantly to the maintenance of biodiversity. One famous hypothesis of diversity maintenance under disturbance is the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (IDH). The IDH proposes patterns of peaked diversity under intermediate disturbance regimes, based on a tension between competitively superior species and species which can rapidly colonize following disturbance. We review the literature, and describe recent research that suggests that more than one underlying mechanism can generate this unimodal diversity pattern in disturbed environments. Several exciting emerging research areas are identified, including interactions between disturbance types, operation of the IDH in multi-trophic systems, and changes in disturbance regimes. However, empirical work is still focussed on describing the IDH pattern, with little emphasis on identifying its mechanistic basis. We discuss how to extend methods for identifying different coexistence mechanisms, developed in the theoretical literature, to experimental research. In an attempt to operationalize these various ideas we outline a hypothetical IDH research programme. A solid understanding of the life history attributes of the component species and their responses to disturbance will facilitate identification of the coexistence mechanism(s) underlying the IDH pattern, and provide a framework by which empirical and theoretical results can be more fully integrated.