Summary1. Species richness in a habitat patch is determined by immigration (regional) and extinction (local) processes, and understanding their relative importance is crucial for conservation of biodiversity. In this study, we applied the Island Biogeography concept to spring ponds connected to a river in southwestern Japan to examine how immigration and extinction processes interact to determine fish species richness in temporally variable environments.2. Fish censuses were conducted 15 times in 13 study ponds at 1–4 month intervals from August 1998 through October 2000. Effects of habitat size (pond area), isolation (distance from the river) and temporal environmental variability (water level fluctuation) on (i) species richness, (ii) immigration and extinction rates and (iii) population size and persistence of each fish species were assessed.3. The results revealed predominant effects of distance on species richness, immigration/extinction rates and population size and persistence. Species richness decreased with increasing distance but was not related to either pond area or water level fluctuation. A negative effect of distance on immigration rate was detected, while neither pond area nor water level fluctuation had significant effects on extinction rate. Further, population size and persistence of four species increased with decreasing distance, suggesting that, in ponds close to the river, immigrants from the river reduce the probability of extinction (i.e. provide a rescue effect), contributing to the maintenance of high species richness.4. Overall results emphasise the importance of immigration processes, rather than extinction, in shaping patterns of species richness in our system. The predominant importance of immigration was probably because of (i) high temporal variability that negates habitat‐size effects and (ii) continuous immigration that easily compensates for local extinctions. Our results suggest that consideration of regional factors (e.g. connectivity, locations of source populations and barriers to colonisation) is crucial for conservation and restoration of local habitats.

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