Much uncertainty exists about the magnitude of woody tissue respiration and its environmental control in highly diverse tropical moist forests. In a tropical mountain rain forest in southern Ecuador, we measured the apparent diurnal gas exchange of stems and coarse roots (diameter 1-4 cm) of trees from representative families along an elevational transect with plots at 1050, 1890 and 3050 m a.s.l. Mean air temperatures were 20.8, 17.2 and 10.6 degrees C, respectively. Stem and root CO(2) efflux of 13 to 21 trees per stand from dominant families were investigated with an open gas exchange system while stand microclimate was continuously monitored. Substantial variation in respiratory activity among and within species was found at all sites. Mean daily CO(2) release rates from stems declined 6.6-fold from 1.38 micromol m(-2) s(-1) at 1050 m to 0.21 micromol m(-2) s(-1) at 3050 m. Mean daily CO(2) release from coarse roots decreased from 0.35 to 0.20 micromol m(-2) s(-1) with altitude, but the differences were not significant. There was, thus, a remarkable shift from a high ratio of stem to coarse root respiration rates at the lowest elevation to an apparent equivalence of stem and coarse root CO(2) efflux rates at the highest elevation. We conclude that stem respiration, but not root respiration, greatly decreases with elevation in this transect, coinciding with a substantial decrease in relative stem diameter increment and a large increase in fine and coarse root biomass production with elevation.