Species’ traits, rather than taxonomic identities, determine community assembly and ecosystem functioning, yet biogeographic patterns have been far less studied for traits. While both environmental conditions and evolutionary history shape trait biogeography, their relative contributions are largely unknown for most organisms. Here, we explore the global biogeography of reef fish traits for 2,786 species from 89 ecoregions spanning eight marine realms with contrasting environmental conditions and evolutionary histories. Across realms, we found a common structure in the distribution of species traits despite a 10-fold gradient in species richness, with a defined “backbone” of 21 trait combinations shared by all realms globally, both temperate and tropical. Across ecoregions, assemblages under similar environmental conditions had similar trait compositions despite hosting drastically different species pools from separate evolutionary lineages. Thus, despite being separated by thousands of kilometers and millions of years of evolution, similar environments host similar trait compositions in reef fish assemblages worldwide. Our findings suggest that similar trait-based management strategies can be applied among regions with distinct species pools, potentially improving conservation outcomes across diverse jurisdictions.