The root systems of forest trees are composed of different diameters and heterogeneous physiological traits. However, the pattern of root respiration rates from finer and coarser roots across various tropical species remains unknown. To clarify how respiration is related to the morphological traits of roots, we evaluated specific root respiration and its relationships to mean root diameter (D) of various diameter and root tissue density (RTD; root mass per unit root volume; gcm−3) and specific root length (SRL; root length per unit root mass; mg−1) of the fine roots among and within 14 trees of 13 species from a primary tropical rainforest in the Pasoh Forest Reserve in Peninsular Malaysia. Coarse root (2–269mm) respiration rates increased with decreasing D, resulting in significant relationships between root respiration and diameter across species. A model based on a radial gradient of respiration rates of coarse roots simulated the exponential decrease in respiration with diameter. The respiration rate of fine roots (<2mm) was much higher and more variable than those of larger diameter roots. For fine roots, the mean respiration rates for each species increased with decreasing D. The respiration rates of fine roots declined markedly with increasing RTD and increased with increasing SRL, which explained a significant portion of the variation in the respiration among the 14 trees from 13 species examined. Our results indicate that coarse root respiration in tree species follows a basic relationship with D across species and that most of the variation in fine root respiration among species is explained by D, RTD and SRL. We found that the relationship between root respiration and morphological traits provides a quantitative basis for separating fine roots from coarse roots and that the pattern holds across different species.