Abstract The geographic distribution of mesozooplankton on the east-southeast Brazilian continental shelf (18–23°S latitude) was determined. This region can be considered a transition between the Abrolhos' tropical water and the Cabo Frio's subtropical water, with mixed tropical and subtropical zooplankton communities. Multivariate analysis reveals latitudinal (Axis 1) and zonal (Axis II) gradient influence on qualitative and quantitative zooplankton characteristics. Zooplankton biomass decreases and specific diversity increases from 23°S towards 18°S and from shore towards open sea. Some organisms like Thaliaceans have particular distribution patterns probably related to stratification or vertical homogeneity of the water mass, and food availability. Spatial heterogeneity of the plankton communities of east-southeast Brazilian shelf is certainly caused by complex interactions between physical and biological processes.