In the wake of widespread loss of old-growth forests throughout the tropics, secondary forests will likely play a growing role in the conservation of forest biodiversity. We considered a complex hierarchy of factors that interact in space and time to determine the conservation potential of tropical secondary forests. Beyond the characteristics of local forest patches, spatial and temporal landscape dynamics influence the establishment, species composition, and persistence of secondary forests. Prospects for conservation of old-growth species in secondary forests are maximized in regions where the ratio of secondary to old-growth forest area is relatively low, older secondary forests have persisted, anthropogenic disturbance after abandonment is relatively low, seed-dispersing fauna are present, and old-growth forests are close to abandoned sites. The conservation value of a secondary forest is expected to increase over time, as species arriving from remaining old-growth forest patches accumulate. Many studies are poorly replicated, which limits robust assessments of the number and abundance of old-growth species present in secondary forests. Older secondary forests are not often studied and few long-term studies are conducted in secondary forests. Available data indicate that both old-growth and second-growth forests are important to the persistence of forest species in tropical, human-modified landscapes.