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Several studies have recently reported that common species are more important for species richness patterns than rare species. However, most such studies have been based on broad-scale atlas data. We studied the contribution of different species occupancy, i.e. number of plots occupied, to species richness patterns emerging from species data in 50 by 50 m plots within six 140–200 ha forests in Norway. The study included vascular plants, lichens, bryophytes, and polypore fungi. We addressed the following questions: 1) are common species more correlated with species richness than rare species? 2) How do occupancy classes combine at various levels of species richness? 3) Which occupancy class is best in identifying the overall most species-rich sites (hotspots) by sampling?

The results showed that rare species were better correlated with species richness than common species when the information content was accounted for, that high species richness was associated with a higher proportion of less frequent species, and that the best occupancy class for local hotspot identification was species present in 10–30% of the plots within a forest.

We argue that the observed correlations between overall richness and sub-assembly richness are primarily structured by the combination of the distributions of species richness and species occupancy. Although these distributions result from general ecological processes, they may also be strongly affected by idiosyncratic elements of the individual datasets caused by the specific environmental composition of a study area. Hence, different datasets collected in different areas may lead to different results regarding the relative importance of common versus rare species, and such effects should be expected on both broad and fine spatial scales. Despite these effects, we suggest that infrequent species will tend to be more strongly correlated to species richness at local scales than at broader scales as a result of more right-skewed species-occupancy distributions.