Seedling emergence and survival of 15 perennial species were studied for six years in a 557-m2 permanent plot at Tumamoc Hill, Arizona, USA, an ungrazed site in the northern Sonoran Desert. The minimum rain required for germination and emergence ranged from 17.5 to 35.6 mm. Few species emerged in every year of the study. First-year survival averaged across all 15 species was 3.7%; only 0.1% of seedlings lived as long as four years. The odds of survival in the first year improved with increased rain. About three times as many seedlings died from predation as desiccation. In 2-m2 subplots, mortality of three woody species in the first 30 days after emergence appeared to be independent of seedling density. Short-, moderate-, and long-lived species displayed distinct survival strategies. Long-lived species compensated for generally poor seedling survival by frequent germination and emergence. Moderate-lived species exhibited highly episodic germination and emergence, a potentially risky behavior that might have been offset to some extent by relatively good long-term survival. Short-lived species had the highest seedling survival. Because these species can bloom in their first year, good early survival meant that some individuals were able to reproduce before they died.