The Atheriniformes are distributed in mainly coastal areas of tropical and temperate seas throughout the world and also occur in freshwater lakes and streams in many regions. Largely or entirely marine atheriniform families include the Atherinidae, Notocheiridae, and Dentatherinidae. Atherinids occur worldwide in near-shore marine environments and in freshwaters of primarily the Americas and Australia. Members of the atherinid subfamily Menidiinae show a propensity for invasion of freshwater habitats from coastal marine environments. In the lakes and streams of the Mesa Central of southern Mexico, freshwater menidiines have diversified into a species flock of 20 or so closely related species with exceedingly circumscribed ranges (many are found in only a single lake). Notocheirids are exclusively marine: five species of the genus Iso are distributed along the coasts of South Africa, India, Japan, Australia, and Hawaii, and the species Notocheirus hubbsi is found only along the coast of Chile. Finally, the family Dentatherinidae consists of but a single species, Dentathe-rina merceri, from the inshore seas of the Philippines, New Guinea, and northeastern Australia.

All of the remaining atheriniform families are predominantly freshwater and are wholly restricted to Australia and the Indo-Pacific region, except for the Bedotiidae from the freshwaters of Madagascar. Rainbowfishes of the family Melanotaeniidae are abundant in New Guinea at elevations below 5,249 ft (1,600 m) as well as on numerous islands to the west of New Guinea. Additionally, they are found in Australia, mostly in river drainages in the northern and eastern regions of the continent. Pseudomugilids, from New Guinea, Australia, and Indonesia, and telmatherinids, from Sulawesi and Indonesia, can be found in fresh, brackish, and marine waters. Likewise, phallostethids occur in freshwaters and estuaries of the Southeast Asian mainland, the Philippines, and Sulawesi.

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