Determining which factors affect species richness is important for conservation theory and practice. However, richness of common and rare species may be affected by different factors. We use an extensive inventory of woody plants from a tropical dry forest landscape in Yucatan, Mexico to assess the unique effects of environmental variables, spatial dependence of sampling sites, forest stand age and the combined effect of all groups of variables on species richness of woody plants with different levels of rarity (common, intermediate, rare, very rare)according to their abundance, habitat specificity and spatial distribution range in the landscape. Analyzing separately common species and those with different levels of rarity uncovered contrasting patterns and correlates of species richness that were not apparent when focusing on all woody plants. In particular, richness of common and intermediate species was influenced mainly by environmental factors, whereas richness of very rare species was affected mostly by the unique effect of spatial dependence of sampling sites, suggesting a main role of environmental filtering and dispersal limitation, respectively. However, common and very rare species also responded inversely to some landscape metrics, revealing contrasting environmental preferences of these groups of species. These contrasting results suggest different underlying mechanisms and the need for very different conservation strategies. Therefore, basic and applied research on tropical forest biodiversity should consider separately species with different levels of rarity, focusing on which factors control variation in each level, and paying special attention to very rare species, generally the most specious and vulnerable to local extinction.