A central aim of ecology is to explain the heterogeneous distribution of biodiversity on earth. As expectations of diversity loss grow, this understanding is also critical for effective management and conservation. Although explanations for biodiversity patterns are still a matter for intense debate, they have often been considered to be scale-dependent. At large geographical scales, biogeographers have suggested that variation in species richness results from factors such as area, temperature, environmental stability, and geological processes, among many others. From the species pools generated by these large-scale processes, community ecologists have suggested that local-scale assembly of communities is achieved through processes such as competition, predation, recruitment, disturbances and immigration. Here we analyse hypotheses on speciation and dispersal for reef fish from the Indian and Pacific oceans and show how dispersal from a major centre of origination can simultaneously account for both large-scale gradients in species richness and the structure of local communities.