Abstract Aim The species–area relationship is a ubiquitous pattern. Previous methods describing the relationship have done little to elucidate mechanisms producing the pattern. Hanski & Gyllenberg (Science, 1997, 275, 397) have shown that a model of metapopulation
dynamics yields predictable species–area relationships. We elaborate on the biological interpretation of this mechanistic model and test the prediction that communities of species with a higher risk of extinction caused by environmental stochasticity should have lower species–area
slopes than communities experiencing less impact of environmental stochasticity. Methods We develop the mainland–island version of the metapopulation model and show that the slope of the species–area relationship resulting from this model is related to the ratio of population
growth rate to variability in population growth of individual species. We fit the metapopulation model to five data sets, and compared the fit with the power function model and Williams's (Ecology, 1995, 76, 2607) extreme value function model. To test that communities consisting
of species with a high risk of extinction should have lower slopes, we used the observation that small-bodied species of vertebrates are more susceptible to environmental stochasticity than large-bodied species. The data sets were divided into small and large bodied species and the model fit
to both. Results and main conclusions The metapopulation model showed a good fit for all five data sets, and was comparable with the fits of the extreme value function and power function models. The slope of the metapopulation model of the species–area relationship was greater
for larger than for smaller-bodied species for each of five data sets. The slope of the metapopulation model of the species–area relationship has a clear biological interpretation, and allows for interpretation that is rooted in ecology, rather than ad hoc explanation.