The importance of dispersal for the maintenance of biodiversity, while long-recognized, has remained unresolved. We used molecular markers to measure effective dispersal in a natural population of the vertebrate-dispersed Neotropical tree, Simarouba amara (Simaroubaceae) by comparing the distances between maternal parents and their offspring and comparing gene movement via seed and pollen in the 50 ha plot of the Barro Colorado Island forest, Central Panama. In all cases (parent-pair, mother–offspring, father–offspring, sib–sib) distances between related pairs were significantly greater than distances to nearest possible neighbours within each category. Long-distance seedling establishment was frequent: 74% of assigned seedlings established > 100 m from the maternal parent [mean = 392 ± 234.6 m (SD), range = 9.3–1000.5 m] and pollen-mediated gene flow was comparable to that of seed [mean = 345.0 ± 157.7 m (SD), range 57.6–739.7 m]. For S. amara we found approximately a 10-fold difference between distances estimated by inverse modelling and mean seedling recruitment distances (39 m vs. 392 m). Our findings have important implications for future studies in forest demography and regeneration, with most seedlings establishing at distances far exceeding those demonstrated by negative density-dependent effects.