Flow regimes are fundamental to sustaining ecological characteristics of rivers worldwide, including their associated floodplains. Recent advances in understanding tropical river–floodplain ecosystems suggest that a small set of basic ecological concepts underpins their biophysical characteristics, especially the high levels of productivity, biodiversity and natural resilience. The concepts relate to (1) river-specific flow patterns, (2) processes ‘fuelled’ by a complex of locally generated carbon and nutrients seasonally mixed with carbon and nutrients from floodplains and catchments, (3) seasonal movements of biota facilitated by flood regimes, (4) food webs and overall productivity sustained by hydrological connectivity, (5) fires in the wet/dry tropical floodplains and riparian zones being major consumers of carbon and a key factor in the subsequent redistribution of nutrients, and (6) river–floodplains having inherent resilience to natural variability but only limited resilience to artificial modifications. Understanding these concepts is particularly timely in anticipating the effects of impending development that may affect tropical river–floodplains at the global scale. Australia, a region encompassing some of the last relatively undisturbed tropical riverine landscapes in the world, provides a valuable case study for understanding the productivity, diversity and resilience of tropical river–floodplain systems. However, significant knowledge gaps remain. Despite substantial recent advances in understanding, present knowledge of these highly complex tropical rivers is insufficient to predict many ecological responses to either human-generated or climate-related changes. The major research challenges identified herein (for example, those related to food web structure, nutrient transfers, productivity, connectivity and resilience), if accomplished in the next decade, will offer substantial insights toward assessing and managing ecological changes associated with human alterations to rivers and their catchments.