Abstract Aim The rate at which similarity in species composition decays with increasing distance was investigated among communities of parasitic helminths in different populations of the same host species. Rates of distance decay in similarity of parasite communities were compared between populations of fish and mammal hosts, which differ with respect to their vagility and potential to disperse parasite species over large distances. Location Data on helminth communities were compiled for several populations of three mammalian host species (Ondatra zibethicus, Procyon lotor and Canis latrans) and three fish host species (Perca flavescens, Catostomus commersoni and Esox lucius) from continental North America. Methods Distances between localities and similarity in the composition of helminth communities, the latter computed using the Jaccard index, were calculated for all possible pairs of host populations within each host species. Similarity values were then regressed against distance to see if they decayed at exponential rates, as reported for plant communities; the significance of the regressions was assessed using randomization tests. Results The number of hosts examined per population did not correlate with the number of helminth species found per population, and thus sampling effort is unlikely to have confounded the results. In four (two mammals and two fish) of the six host species, similarity in helminth communities decayed exponentially with distance. When the log of similarity is plotted against untransformed distance, the slopes obtained for the two fish species are lower than those obtained for the two mammalian host species. Main conclusions Similarity in the composition of parasite communities appears to decay exponentially with increasing distance in some host species, but not in all host species. The rate of decay is not necessarily associated with the vagility of the host. Although distance decay of similarity is generally occurring, it seems that other ecological processes, related either to the host or its habitat, can obscure it.