Aim To determine whether rare or common species contribute most to overall patterns of spatial variation in extant species richness.
Methods Using data on the distribution of mammal species across Mexico at a quarter degree resolution, we ranked species from the most widespread to the most restricted (common-to-rare) within the study area, and from the most restricted to the most widespread (rare-to-common), and generated a sequence of patterns of species richness for increasing numbers of species. At each stage along both series of richness patterns, we correlated the species richness pattern for the subassemblage with that of the full assemblage. This allows comparison of subassemblages of the n most common with the n most rare species, in terms of how well they match the full assemblage richness pattern. Further analyses examined the effects on these patterns of correlation of the amount of raw information contained in the distributions of given numbers of rare and common species.
Results For the mammals of Mexico the more widely distributed species contribute disproportionately to patterns of species richness compared with more restricted species, particularly for non-volant species and endemic species. This is not simply a consequence of differences in the volumes of information contained in the distributions of rare and common species, with the disproportionate contribution of common species if anything being sharpened when these differences are taken into account. The pattern is most clearly demonstrated by endemic species, suggesting that the contribution of common species is clearest when the causes of rarity and commonness are limited to those genuinely resulting in narrow and widespread geographical ranges, respectively, rather than artificial (e.g. geopolitical) boundaries to the extents of study regions.
Conclusions Perhaps surprisingly, an understanding of the determinants of overall patterns of species richness may gain most from consideration of why common species occur in some areas and are absent from others, rather than consideration of the distributions of rare species.