Although the relationship between species richness and available energy is well established for a range of spatial scales, exploration of the plausible underlying explanations for this relationship is less common. Speciation, extinction, dispersal and environmental filters all play a role. Here we make use of replicated elevational transects and the insights offered by comparing indigenous and invasive species to test four proximal mechanisms that have been offered to explain relationships between energy availability, abundance and species richness: the sampling mechanism (a null expectation), and the more individuals, dynamic equilibrium and range limitation mechanisms. We also briefly consider the time for speciation mechanism. We do so for springtails on sub-Antarctic Marion Island. Relationships between energy availability and species richness are stronger for invasive than indigenous species, with geometric constraints and area variation playing minor roles. We reject the sampling and more individuals mechanisms, but show that dynamic equilibrium and range limitation are plausible mechanisms underlying these gradients, especially for invasive species. Time for speciation cannot be ruled out as contributing to richness variation in the indigenous species. Differences between the indigenous and invasive species highlight the ways in which deconstruction of richness gradients may usefully inform investigations of the mechanisms underlying them. They also point to the importance of population size-related mechanisms in accounting for such variation. In the context of the sub-Antarctic our findings suggest that warming climates may favour invasive over indigenous species in the context of changes to elevational distributions, a situation found for vascular plants, and predicted for springtails on the basis of smaller-scale manipulative field experiments.