Aim The intention with this study was first to investigate and describe the broad-scale geographical patterns of species richness of breeding shorebirds (Charadriiformes; families: Charadriidae, Scolopacidae and Haematopodidae) throughout the arctic tundra biome. Secondly, after compensating for the positive relationship between net primary productivity (NPP) and species richness, the relative importance of additional ecological and historical variables for species richness was investigated. The main variables considered are NPP, length of snow- and ice-free season, accessibility of regions depending on migratory flyway systems, tundra area at Pleistocene (120 and 20-18 ka bp) and Holocene (8 ka bp) times, and tundra area at present. Methods Information on shorebird species breeding distributions was compiled from distribution atlases and species accounts. The breeding distributions of shorebirds with ranges partly or completely in the Arctic (a total of 50 species) were mapped in ArcView 3.2 to create a raster grid layer of shorebird species richness at a 1degrees latitude x longitude resolution. The total and mean species richness value was calculated per each 10degrees of longitude sector of the Arctic. The relationships between species richness and the different climatic and environmental variables were analysed on the basis of this sector-wise division of the arctic tundra. The influence of each variable on species richness was investigated using univariate and multivariate analyses (multivariate linear regression and general linear model). Results We found that patterns of breeding shorebird species richness in the Arctic tundra biome are to a large degree determined by the NPP, the length of the snow- or ice-free season, the diversity of migratory flyways, as well as the historical extent of tundra habitat area during the maximum cooling of the last glacial period. Essentially, two main regions are distinguishable in the circumpolar Arctic regarding shorebird community richness. These are a species-rich Beringia-centred region and a species-poor Atlantic-centred region. Main conclusions The underlying explanations to these major trends may primarily be attributed to factors that operate at present through accessibility of areas from contemporary migration flyways, as well as processes that operated in the past during and after the last glacial cycle. The most prominent influence on the shorebird diversity was found for NPP in combination with the diversity of migratory flyways. These flyways provide the links between breeding and wintering resources, often separated by huge distances, and the geographical and ecological conditions associated with the shorebirds' migration seem to be of particular importance for their breeding diversity in different sectors of circumpolar tundra.