Abstract The ability to withstand disturbance (resistance) and the ability to recover biomass following disturbance (resilience) were investigated in Australian wet tropical rainforest tree species. These two attributes are expected to be negatively correlated, because investment of biomass in structural support (conferring resistance) results in trees exhibiting high wood densities and slow growth rates, and vice versa. We examined species’ responses to disturbance caused by a severe tropical cyclone to test this hypothesized trade-off. We assessed cyclone damage in six species in three Mabi rainforest fragments on the Atherton Tablelands. Species differed in the proportion of individuals within four damage categories (minor damage, severe branch damage, snapped, uprooted). Resistance was positively related to wood density. We found a positive correlation between the proportion of trees experiencing minor damage only and wood density, supporting the hypothesized association between resistance and mechanical strength. Among the subset of trees in which stems snapped, rates of resprouting differed between species and were highest in low wood density species and lowest in species with highest wood density. Resilience, characterized as the ability to recover biomass following disturbance and estimated as growth rate standardized for stem diameter at breast height (g day−1 · mm−1), was negatively related to wood density. Thus, species with low wood densities were more likely to suffer stem and branch damage owing to cyclonic winds, but also demonstrated highest resprouting and fastest responses in terms of redeveloping biomass in the 8 months following disturbance. This suggests that a species’ position along the resistance–resilience spectrum can be predicted by mean wood density, which may allow managers to predict species’ responses to future cyclones. Our findings also provide mechanistic evidence for the ‘direct regeneration’ model of post-cyclone succession, where response is characterized by resprouting and species composition is unchanged.