Aim The primary objective of our study was to examine the factors affecting the distribution of vascular plants, springtails, butterflies and birds on small tropical islands to understand how different groups of organisms with distinct biological traits respond to biogeographical variables, such as island area.Location The Republic of Singapore (103°50′E, 1°20′N) located at the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia.Methods Seventeen islands were surveyed for vascular plants, springtails, butterflies and birds. Correlation analysis, simple linear and multiple regression analyses and the nestedness index were used to test the hypotheses that (1) area is the best predictor of species/genus richness at both the community and specific/generic levels; (2) there is no correlation between population density and island area; and (3) species/genera are distributed as nested subsets.Results Area was the most significant factor in determining the island distribution of springtails, butterflies and birds at both the community and specific/generic levels, although there were disparate responses to the biogeographical variables between the three taxonomic groups, as well as between common species within each group. Individual species displayed disparate responses to biogeographical variables, suggesting that patterns of distribution at the community level may not be a good indicator of the population dynamics of individual species/genera. Plant species richness did not show any correlation with any of the tested variables. Population densities of springtails, butterflies and birds were positively correlated with area, contradicting the assumption of the equilibrium theory of island biogeography that population density of island species is independent of area. Population densities of plants showed no correlation with any of the tested biogeographical variables. Vascular plant, springtail, butterfly and bird communities on the islands showed significant patterns of nestedness, indicating there may be species/genus-specific responses to biogeographical variables.Main conclusions We conclude that although area was the most important factor affecting the island distribution of springtails, butterflies and birds, conservation planning must take into consideration how target taxonomic groups respond to biogeographical variables, instead of relying on general principles (e.g. those derived from the equilibrium theory). On a local scale, in order to preserve the island biodiversity of Singapore, the highest priority should be given to preserving the larger islands (e.g. Pulau Ubin) which not only have higher numbers of species, but also species that are absent on smaller islands.