In New Caledonia, rain forests with an upper canopy dominated by single species of Nothofagus occur next to mixed-canopy forests, without discernible environmental cause. A potential explanation is that they are different successional stages. To test this hypothesis and predict long-term change in canopy dominance, population size structures of 61 canopy species were analysed in six Nothofagus-dominated forests and three adjacent mixed rain forests. Weibull analysis suggests that these Nothofagus forests are secondary forests, with recruitment insufficient to maintain monodominance, except at a high-altitude site. At low- to mid-altitudes the Nothofagus canopy is predicted to develop into a mixed canopy, unless moderate to severe disturbance occurs within its reproductive lifespan. However, adjacent mixed rain forests are also secondary, with 85 of analysed species showing no evidence of continuous regeneration. Fifteen species from both forest types showed reverse-J curves suggesting continuous regeneration, but only Calophyllum caledonicum did so consistently. Since few canopy species showed evidence of high shade tolerance and persistence, a small number of shade-tolerant species is predicted to dominate both forests in the long term, in the hypothetical absence of disturbance. Hence, temporal factors associated with disturbances play a key role in determining dominance in these forests.