Summary Aim We compared assemblages of small mammal communities from three major desert regions on two continents in the northern hemisphere. Our objective was to compare these with respect to three characteristics: (1) species richness and representation of trophic groups; (2) the degree to which these assemblages exhibit nested community structure; and (3) the extent to which competitive interactions appear to influence local community assembly. Location We studied small mammal communities from the deserts of North America (N=201 sites) and two regions in Central Asia (the Gobi Desert (N=97 sites) and the Turan Desert Region (N=36 sites), including the Kara-Kum, Kyzyl-Kum, NE Daghestan, and extreme western Kazakhstan Deserts). Method To provide baseline data we characterized each desert region in terms of alpha, beta, and gamma diversity, and in terms of the distribution of taxa across trophic and locomotory groups. We evaluated nestedness of these communities using the Nestedness Temperature Calculator developed by Atmar & Patterson (1993, 1995), and we evaluated the role of competitive interactions in community assembly and applied a null model of local assembly under varying degrees of competitive interaction ( Kelt et al., 1995, 1996 ). Results All three desert regions have low alpha diversity and high beta diversity. The total number of species in each region varied, being highest in North America, and lowest in the Turan Desert Region. The deserts studied all present evidence of significant nestedness, but the mechanism underlying this structure appears different in North American and Asia. In North America, simulations strongly implicate interspecific competition as a dominant mechanism influencing community and assemblage structure. In contrast, data from Asian desert rodent communities suggest that these are not strongly influenced by competition; in fact, they have greater numbers of ecologically and morphologically similar species than expected. These results appear to reflect strong habitat selection, with positive associations among species that share similar habitat requirements in these communities. Our analyses support earlier reports suggesting that predation and abiotic forces may have greater influences on the assembly and organization of Asian desert rodent communities, whereas interspecific competition dominates assembly processes in North America. Additionally, we suggest that structuring mechanisms may be very different among the two Asian deserts studied. Gobi assemblages appear structured by trophic and locomotory strategies. In contrast, Turan Desert Region assemblages appear to be randomly structured with respect to locomotory strategies. When trophic and locomotory categories are combined, however, Turan species are positively and nonrandomly associated. Main conclusions Very different ecological dynamics evidently exist not only between these continents, but within them as well. These small mammal faunas differ greatly in terms of community structure, but also appear to differ in the underlying mechanisms by which communities are assembled. The underlying role of history and geography are strongly implicated as central features in understanding the evolution of mammalian faunas in different deserts of the world.