Many hypotheses have been proposed to account for geographic variations in species diversity. In general these relate to some aspect of climate, particularly climatic variables measuring available or potential energy, but while these relate directly to plant diversity they may only indirectly affect mammal species richness. We have examined these relationships by mapping and correlating mammal species richness in southern Africa (n= 285 species) with 15 climatic variables, two topographic variables, and woody plant species richness (n= 1359 species). The effect of area on richness was held a constant by using an equal-area grid cell matrix superimposed on species range maps, with each grid cell equal to 25 000 km2. We found that variability in the plant species richness alone accounts for 75% of the variability in mammal species richness. Of the climatic variables, only thermal seasonality approaches this figure, accounting for 69% of the variability, while annual measures of temperature, precipitation or energy account for only 14–35% of variability. Differences from North American mammal diversity studies, where annual temperature, and hence annual potential evapotranspiration (PET), have been found to be more important, are attributed in part to southern Africa's climate and vegetation being largely temperate to tropical, as opposed to temperate to polar in North America. By distinguishing different types of mammal based on size, spatial and dietary guilds, other differences emerge. Strong correlations with annual temperature exist only for large mammals, accounting for 60–67% of the variability in species richness of large mammals compared with <20% for small mammals. Small mammals are strongly correlated with other climatic or vegetation parameters, especially plant richness and thermal seasonality; frugivorous and insectivorous mammal richness is correlated with thermal seasonality and minimum monthly PET; and arboreal and aerial species richness is correlated with plant richness, thermal seasonality and minimum monthly PET. Up to 77% of the variability in richness of arboreal, frugivorous and insectivorous species can be explained by woody plant richness, compared with only 38–48% of the variability in terrestrial herbivores. It is clear from this that different kinds of mammals are differentially affected by climatic and environmental factors, and this explains some of the discrepancies found in earlier studies where no distinction was made between different sizes or guilds of mammal. This result has implications both for the conservation of mammalian communities at the present time and for understanding the evolution and structure of mammalian communities in the past.