Shade tolerance (the capacity to survive and grow over long periods under shade) is a key component of plant fitness and the foundation of current theories of forest succession in tropical rain forests. It serves as a paradigm to understand the optimal allocation of limited resources under dynamic light regimes. I analyze how tropical rain forest succession influences the expression of ecophysiological mechanisms leading to shade tolerance, and identify future areas that will increase our understanding of the ecological and evolutionary consequences of this phenomenon. Shade tolerance is a multivariate, continuous functional trait reflecting the growth-mortality trade-off of investing resources under limited light vs. exploiting high light conditions. I propose the life cycle successional trajectory model of Gómez-Pompa & Vázquez-Yanes as an integrative tool to understand tropical rain forest succession. This model shows how species distribute along the successional environmental gradient based on their degree of shade tolerance and represents a more integrative paradigm to understand the interface between different aspects of species diversity (ontogenetic variation and functional diversity) throughout succession. It proposes that different trait combinations determining shade tolerance are expressed at different stages of the life cycle, which affects how and when plants enter the successional trajectory. Models explaining the expression of shade tolerance (resource availability, carbon gain, CSR, resource competition) are based on whole-plant economics and are not mutually exclusive. The analysis of shade tolerance is biased towards tree seedlings in the understory of mature forests. Other life stages (juvenile and adult trees), life forms, and microhabitats throughout the forest profile are almost always excluded from these analyses. More integrative explanations based on the distribution of functional traits among species, ontogenetic stages, and the nature of the environmental gradient are being developed based on long-term data and chronosequence comparisons. In summary, shade-tolerance is a complex phenomenon, is determined by multiple characters that change ontogenetically over space and time and entails considerable plasticity. Current methods do not account for this plasticity. Understanding the nature of shade tolerance and its functional basis is critical to comprehending plant performance and improving the management, restoration and conservation of tropical rain forests given the combined threats of global warming and habitat loss

Keywords: environmental filtering; functional traits; gap phase; leaf-economics spectrum; niche differentiation; ontogenetic niche shifts; plant-economics spectrum; secondary succession; shade tolerance; regeneration niche.