We present new data and the first rigorous analysis of latitudinal and thermal gradients of diversity, density and biomass of marine herbivorous fishes and review proposed explanatory mechanisms. Consistently, negative relationships between latitude, and positive relationships between sea surface temperature (SST), and relative richness and relative abundance of herbivorous fishes were found worldwide. Significant differences in the strength of gradients of richness and abundance with latitude and SST between tropical and extratropical zones were found consistently across ocean basins. Standardized sampling along the western Atlantic also showed negative relationships between latitude and total density and biomass. The trends, however, are driven by different components of the fish assemblages (i.e., scarids in the Caribbean and acanthurids in Brazil). Patterns of abundance along thermal gradients, generally associated with extensive latitudinal gradients, also were found at the local scale. Feeding rate of the ocean surgeonfish Acanthurus bahianus decreases with temperature more rapidly than the mean metabolic rate of teleost fishes. This relationship suggests a temperature-related physiological constraint. From the new standardized and comparative data presented and the review of the explanatory hypotheses, we conclude that temperature-related feeding and digestive processes are most likely involved in the distribution patterns of herbivorous fishes.