Vulnerability of xylem conduits to cavitation and embolism was compared in two species of Rhizophoraceae, the mangrove Rhizophora mangle L. and the tropical moist-forest Cassipourea elliptica (Sw.) Poir. Cavitation (water column breakage preceeding embolism) was monitored by ultrasonic detection; embolism was quantified by its reduction of xylem hydraulic conductivity. Acoustic data were not predictive of loss in hydraulic conductivity, probably because signals from cavitating vessels were swamped by more numerous ones from cavitating fibers. Rhizophora mangle was the less vulnerable to embolism of the two species, losing 80% of its hydraulic conductivity between – 6.0 and – 7.0 MPa. Cassipourea elliptica lost conductivity in linear proportion to decreasing xylem pressure from – 0.5 to – 7.0 MPa. Species vulnerability correlated closely with physiological demands of habitat; the mangrove Rhizophora mangle had field xylem pressures between – 2.5 and – 4.0 MPa. whereas the minimum for Cassipourea elliptica was – 1.6 MPa. Differences in vulnerability between species could be accounted for by differences in the measured air permeability of intervessel pit membranes. According to this explanation, embolism occurs when air enters a water-filled vessel from a neighboring air-filled one via pores in shared pit membranes.