A series of growth experiments and observations on natural populations have been carried out on dipterocarp species of contrasting ecology growing in artificial gaps and the forest understorey. These studies have demonstrated that although differences exist between species in photosynthetic and growth responses to the high–light environment, competition for light in canopy gaps is highly asymmetrical and tends to reinforce any pre–existing dominance hierarchy. We propose that differences in seedling persistence in forest canopy shade are highly influenced by species–specific biotic and abiotic interactions. Our experiments suggest that as seedlings, dipterocarp species trade off traits which enhance persistence and growth in shade against those that enhance their ability to exploit gaps. Less competitive species survive for progressively longer periods of time after a gregarious fruiting event. This leads to significant shifts with time in the number of species present in the seedling bank and hence in the importance of interspecific competition in determining which species dominates regrowth in gaps. We propose that this special case of dispersal limitation is more likely to account for coexistence of dipterocarp species than differences in growth responses to gaps of different size, with stochastic and environmental variables interacting to determine species distribution and abundance.