The correlation between vegetation patterns (species distribution and richness) and altitudinal variation has been widely reported for tropical forests, thereby providing theoretical basis for biodiversity conservation. However, this relationship may have been oversimplified, as many other factors may influence vegetation patterns, such as disturbances, topography and geographic distance. Considering these other factors, our primary question was: is there a vegetation pattern associated with substantial altitudinal variation (10-1,093 m a.s.l.) in the Atlantic Rainforest-a top hotspot for biodiversity conservation-and, if so, what are the main factors driving this pattern? We addressed this question by sampling 11 1-ha plots, applying multivariate methods, correlations and variance partitioning. The Restinga (forest on sandbanks along the coastal plains of Brazil) and a lowland area that was selectively logged 40 years ago were floristically isolated from the other plots. The maximum species richness (>200 spp. per hectare) occurred at approximately 350 m a.s.l. (submontane forest). Gaps, multiple stemmed trees, average elevation and the standard deviation of the slope significantly affected the vegetation pattern. Spatial proximity also influenced the vegetation pattern as a structuring environmental variable or via dispersal constraints. Our results clarify, for the first time, the key variables that drive species distribution and richness across a large altitudinal range within the Atlantic Rainforest. © 2013 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.