Foliar respiration is a major component of ecosystem respiration, yet extrapolations are often uncertain in tropical forests because of indirect estimates of leaf area index (LAI). A portable tower was used to directly measure LAI and night-time foliar respiration from 52 vertical transects throughout an old-growth tropical rain forest in Costa Rica. In this study, we (1) explored the effects of structural, functional and environmental variables on foliar respiration; (2) extrapolated foliar respiration to the ecosystem; and (3) estimated ecosystem respiration. Foliar respiration temperature response was constant within plant functional group, and foliar morphology drove much of the within-canopy variability in respiration and foliar nutrients. Foliar respiration per unit ground area was 3.5 +/- 0.2 micromol CO2 m(-2) s(-1), and ecosystem respiration was 9.4 +/- 0.5 micromol CO2 m(-2) s(-1)[soil = 41%; foliage = 37%; woody = 14%; coarse woody debris (CWD) = 7%]. When modelled with El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) year temperatures, foliar respiration was 9% greater than when modelled with temperatures from a normal year, which is in the range of carbon sink versus source behaviour for this forest. Our ecosystem respiration estimate from component fluxes was 33% greater than night-time net ecosystem exchange for the same forest, suggesting that studies reporting a large carbon sink for tropical rain forests based solely on eddy flux measurements may be in error.