Abstract Aim Identifying areas of high species richness is an important goal of conservation biogeography. In this study we compared alternative methods for generating climate-based estimates of spatial patterns of butterfly and mammal species richness. Location Egypt. Methods Data on the occurrence of butterflies and mammals in Egypt were taken from an electronic database compiled from museum records and the literature. Using Maxent, species distribution models were built with these data and with variables describing climate and habitat. Species richness predictions were made by summing distribution models for individual species and by modelling observed species richness directly using the same environmental variables. Results Estimates of species richness from both methods correlated positively with each other and with observed species richness. Protected areas had higher species richness (both predicted and actual) than unprotected areas. Main conclusions Our results suggest that climate-based models of species richness could provide a rapid method for selecting potential areas for protection and thus have important implications for biodiversity conservation.