We provide a cross-taxon and historical analysis of what makes tropical forest species vulnerable to extinction. Several traits have been important for species survival in the recent and distant geological past, including seed dormancy and vegetative growth in plants, small body size in mammals, and vagility in insects. For major past catastrophes, such as the five mass extinction events, large range size and vagility or dispersal were key to species survival. Traits that make some species more vulnerable to extinction are consistent across time scales. Terrestrial organisms, particularly animals, are more extinction prone than marine organisms. Plants that persist through dramatic changes often reproduce vegetatively and possess mechanisms of die back. Synergistic interactions between current anthropogenic threats, such as logging, fire, hunting, pests and diseases, and climate change are frequent. Rising temperatures threaten all organisms, perhaps particularly tropical organisms adapted to small temperature ranges and isolated by distance from suitable future climates. Mutualist species and trophic specialists may also be more threatened because of such range-shift gaps. Phylogenetically specialized groups may be collectively more prone to extinction than generalists. Characterization of tropical forest species' vulnerability to anthropogenic change is constrained by complex interactions among threats and by both taxonomic and ecological impediments, including gross undersampling of biotas and poor understanding of the spatial patterns of taxa at all scales.