Habitat heterogeneity and dispersal limitation are widely considered to be the two major mechanisms in determining tree species distributions. However, few studies have quantified the relative importance of these two mechanisms at different life stages of trees. Moreover, rigorous quantification of the effects of dominant tree species in determining species distributions has seldom been explored. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that the distribution of tree species is regulated by different mechanisms at different life history stages. In particular, we hypothesised that dispersal limitation regulates the distribution of trees at early life stages and that environmental factors control the distribution of trees as they grow, because of niche differentiation resulting from environmental filtering. To test this, trees in 400-m2 quadrats in a 20-ha plot in Xishuangbanna, southwest China were grouped into four classes on the basis of the diameter at breast height (DBH) that roughly represent different stages in the life history of trees. A neighbourhood index was computed to represent a neutral spatial autocorrelation effect. We used both biotic (dominant species) and abiotic (topography and soil) predictor variables to model the distribution of each target species while controlling for spatial autocorrelation within each of the DBH classes. To determine which factors played the largest role in regulating target species distribution, the simulated annealing method was used in model selection based on Akaike information criterion (AIC) values. The results showed that the relative importance of neutral and niche processes in regulating species distribution varied across life stages. The neutral neighbourhood index played the most important role in determining the distributions of small trees (1 cm ≤ DBH ≤ 10 cm), and dominant species, as biotic environmental predictor variables, were the next most important regulators for trees of this size. Environmental predictor variables played the most important role in determining the distributions of large trees (10 cm ≤ DBH). This finding builds on previous research into the relative importance of neutral and niche processes in determining species distributions regardless of life stages or DBH classes.