• demography;
  • model population;
  • rain forests;
  • recruitment rate;
  • size structure;
  • transition rate;
  • tree population.

1 In censuses of tree populations in permanent plots, short census intervals and small population size lead to uncertainty in the observed recruitment rate of a minimum size. Increasing the census interval, however, underestimates the rate because of unrecorded ‘recruit and die’ events.

2 We propose a new Gf procedure for estimation of recruitment rates. Recruitment rate per area is obtained by multiplication of the density in the smallest size class (f) and the average size growth rate in that class (G) divided by the width of the class. This procedure is valid when the size distribution of the population examined is continuous with size.

3 When tree size structure is negative-exponentially distributed, as is often the case in natural rain forest populations, the Gf estimate of the recruitment rate for a given size class was least biased close to the midpoint size of this class.

4 Gf estimates agreed well with census estimates of recruitment rate from permanent plots in rain forests. A tendency for Gf estimates to be larger than census estimates disappeared when census estimates were corrected for mortality after recruitment.

5 The effects of plot size, census interval and variation in growth rate on estimates of recruitment rate were simulated using model populations. Small plot size caused substantially more among-plot deviation for the census count of recruitment events than for the Gf estimate. The census recruitment rate also showed larger variation among plots for shorter intervals than the Gf estimate, which was independent of census interval. The Gf estimates were therefore more accurate than census counts in many situations. More than several tens of trees were needed in a size class to allow a reliable Gf estimates.