Species–area relationships (SAR) are fundamental in the understanding of biodiversity patterns and of critical importance for predicting species extinction risk worldwide. Despite the enormous attention given to SAR in the form of many individual analyses, little attempt has been made to synthesize these studies. We conducted a quantitative meta-analysis of 794 SAR, comprising a wide span of organisms, habitats and locations. We identified factors reflecting both pattern-based and dynamic approaches to SAR and tested whether these factors leave significant imprints on the slope and strength of SAR. Our analysis revealed that SAR are significantly affected by variables characterizing the sampling scheme, the spatial scale, and the types of organisms or habitats involved. We found that steeper SAR are generated at lower latitudes and by larger organisms. SAR varied significantly between nested and independent sampling schemes and between major ecosystem types, but not generally between the terrestrial and the aquatic realm. Both the fit and the slope of the SAR were scale-dependent. We conclude that factors dynamically regulating species richness at different spatial scales strongly affect the shape of SAR. We highlight important consequences of this systematic variation in SAR for ecological theory, conservation management and extinction risk predictions.