Tropical mountains contain some of the world’s richest animal communities as a result of high turnover of species along elevational gradients. We describe an approach to study the roles of biotic and abiotic factors in establishing elevational ranges, and to improve our ability to predict the effects of climate change on these communities. As a framework we use Hutchinson’s concept of the fundamental niche (determined by the match between the physical environment and the organism’s physiological and biophysical characteristics) and realized niche (the subset of the fundamental niche determined by biotic interactions). Using tropical birds as an example, we propose a method for estimating fundamental niches and discuss five biotic interactions that we expect to influence distributions of tropical montane animals: predation, competition, parasites and pathogens, mutualisms, and habitat associations. The effects of biotic factors on elevational ranges have been studied to some extent, but there is little information on physiological responses of tropical montane animals. It will be necessary to understand all of these ecological constraints in concert to predict current and future elevational ranges and potential threats to montane species. Given the importance of tropical mountains as global biodiversity hotspots, we argue that this area of research requires urgent attention.