Endothelium-dependent relaxations to acetylcholine have been identified in mammalian arteries and veins. To determine the occurrence of such relaxations in other classes of vertebrates, rings of descending aortas of turtles, cayman and bullfrogs and ventral aortas of trout were suspended for isometric force measurements. Acetylcholine and the calcium ionophore A23187 initiated concentration-dependent relaxations in aortas from cayman and bullfrogs contracted with norepinephrine. These relaxations were not affected by meclofenamate, were reversed by methylene blue and abolished by endothelium removal. Acetylcholine caused concentration-dependent contractions in aortas (with and without endothelium) from trout and turtles; these tissues contracted minimally to norepinephrine. In the aortas of the trout contracted with acetylcholine, the calcium ionophore A23187 initiated endothelium-dependent relaxations which were reversed by methylene blue and abolished by meclofenamate. A23187 contracted turtle aortas; an effect reduced by endothelium removal. These data demonstrate endothelium-dependent relaxations and contractions in blood vessels of reptiles, amphibians and teleosts. Thus, endothelium-dependent modulation of the responses of the vascular smooth muscle represents a cardiovascular regulatory mechanism which appears early in vertebrate phylogeny.