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Abstract Diversity patterns of small mammals were studied along an elevational transect on Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South-east Asia, utilizing data from previously existing sources and a new field study. A mark-and-release study (conducted during wet and dry seasons between November 1994 and April 1995) resulted in captures of 12 small mammal species, including two species of squirrels, two tree shrews, seven murid rodents and one gymnure. Based on data compiled from this survey, museum specimens, and published and unpublished literature (analysed by locally weighted sums of squares and quadratic polynomial regressions), species richness of small mammals formed a middle elevation bulge, highest at about 1200–1400 m and declining at lower and higher elevations. Trapping during two seasons did not change the assessment of the pattern. A cluster analysis of these data indicated that there are two elevationally associated faunas, one in the highlands and another in the lowlands. The transition between these two assemblages is at 1700–1800 m elevation. The lowland faunal assemblage has the highest number of species, with maximum species richness at about 1300 m for total small mammal species, about 1200 m for arboreal species and about 1400 m for terrestrial species. The areas where much overlapping of species occurs are the elevations where climate and vegetation change rapidly from lowland to montane types. Tree species, gymnosperms, orchids and ferns showed a similar curvilinear pattern along the same elevational gradient, with maximum species richness at about 1400–1500 m. Temperature declined progressively with increasing elevation, but rainfall and humidity reached their highest levels at about 1700 m. Maximum diversity of small mammals thus occurred at the elevation where a highland and a lowland assemblage overlapped, where several types of plants reached their maximum diversity, and where rainfall and humidity reached their maxima. Similar patterns have been documented for small mammals, plants, and climate at sites scattered in Indo-Australia from Taiwan to New Guinea.