In spite of their potential use as indicators of both present and past environmental conditions, little is known about the diatom communities in the many small water bodies at high altitudes in New Zealand. We sampled benthic diatoms at 20 sites in a typical subalpine mire pool/tarn complex near Arthur's Pass in South Island, New Zealand in the austral spring 2001. The aims were to characterise the diatom communities, including identification of a possible endemic component, and to investigate relationships with environmental variables. The community at genus level was consistent with the peat-bog diatom flora reported from elsewhere except for the common occurrence of the Tasmania/New Zealand endemic genus Eunophora. At the species level, 27 of the 52 most common taxa appear to correspond to known species from the Northern Hemisphere and are therefore presumed to be cosmopolitan in their distribution. Just two taxa are known from the Southern Hemisphere only, however identification of the remaining common species proved problematic. Analysis using the BIO-ENV procedure of the PRIMER computer program confirmed an expected strong association between diatom community composition and pH, with water conductivity and gilvin also important. Weighted averaging regression and cross-validation using C2 software enabled selection of four diatom species as potentially sensitive indicators of certain pH levels. Neither species of Eunophora showed a strong preference for pH or for any of the other environmental variables measured, indicating that other factors are determining their distributions. The strength of the species-environment relationships found in this small survey suggests good potential for monitoring current conditions and for palaeoecological applications. Extension of the dataset with information from other alpine/subalpine areas is desirable, as is the compilation of a regional diatom identification guide for these habitats.