© 2015, The Author(s). Here, we present a community perspective on how to explore, exploit and evolve the diversity in aquatic ecosystem models. These models play an important role in understanding the functioning of aquatic ecosystems, filling in observation gaps and developing effective strategies for water quality management. In this spirit, numerous models have been developed since the 1970s. We set off to explore model diversity by making an inventory among 42 aquatic ecosystem modellers, by categorizing the resulting set of models and by analysing them for diversity. We then focus on how to exploit model diversity by comparing and combining different aspects of existing models. Finally, we discuss how model diversity came about in the past and could evolve in the future. Throughout our study, we use analogies from biodiversity research to analyse and interpret model diversity. We recommend to make models publicly available through open-source policies, to standardize documentation and technical implementation of models, and to compare models through ensemble modelling and interdisciplinary approaches. We end with our perspective on how the field of aquatic ecosystem modelling might develop in the next 5–10 years. To strive for clarity and to improve readability for non-modellers, we include a glossary.