Abstract Aim Andean forests are known to be a major diversity hotspot for vascular plants and vertebrates, but virtually nothing is known about the diversity of arthropods. We examined whether montane rain forests in southern Ecuador are also a diversity hotspot for arthropods, and chose geometrid moths as a model group. Location The study area in southern Ecuador (Province Zamora-Chinchipe, 79° W, 04° S) covers c. 40 km2, with 39 collecting sites within an elevational range of 1040–2677 m a.s.l. Thirty-five of the sites were situated in an area c. 2.5 km2. Additional qualitative sampling was carried out in the same area and up to an elevation of 3100 m. Methods Nocturnal moths were collected quantitatively and qualitatively using portable light towers consisting of two 15 W fluorescent tubes, and diurnal moths were collected qualitatively using an insect net. Insects were sampled in six fieldwork periods in the years 1999–2003. As diversity measures, Fisher's alpha of the log-series distribution as well as eight estimators of total species richness were applied. Results A total of 1266 species were recorded, 63% of which were identified to named species, whereas the remainder are likely to include many undescribed species. Quantitative samples at light towers collected 35,238 specimens representing 1223 species. The extrapolated species number for these data is 1420 (incidence coverage estimator). Twenty-one additional nocturnal species and 22 exclusively diurnal species were sampled qualitatively at elevations between 1040 and 3100 m. The pooled value of Fisher's alpha for all quantitative samples is 246 ± 3. Main conclusions The diversity of Geometridae documented here is much higher than anywhere else in the world, even without the inclusion of additional species from adjacent lowland rain forests. The number of recorded species in this small area corresponds to more than 6% of the known world fauna of geometrid moths. Our study emphasizes the importance of protecting the remaining montane Andean rain forests. For setting priorities in conservation, more studies on insect diversity are urgently required in other regions of the Andes, since montane forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate.