Several monodominant rain-forest trees in New Caledonia have population size structures suggesting establishment following large-scale disturbance, with eventual replacement by shade-tolerant species predicted in the absence of future disturbance. Links of dominance and population dynamics to leaf-level photosynthesis were investigated in seedlings of 20 tree species from these forests, grown in experimental sun and shade conditions. In particular, we tested whether episodically regenerating (ER) species, including monodominants, have higher assimilation rates at high irradiances and lower tolerance of shade than continuously regenerating species (CR). ER species had higher maximum net assimilation rates (Amax-area) in sun plants (9.6 ± 0.4 μmol m−2 s−1) than CR species (6.2 ± 0.3 μmol m−2 s−1) and high plasticity, typical of shade-intolerant species, but monodominant species did not differ from other ER species. CR species had leaf-level traits consistent with shade tolerance, including lower dark respiration rates (Rd-area = 0.47 ± 0.03μmol m−2 s−1; Rd-mass = 7 ± 1 nmol g−1 s−1) than ER species (Rd-area = 0.63 ± 0.06 μmol m−2 s−1; Rd-mass = 11 ± 2 nmol g−1 s−1) in shade plants. Hence leaf-level assimilation traits were largely consistent with regeneration patterns, but do not explain why some shade-intolerant species can achieve monodominance.