Abstract We studied the ontogeny and organization of GABAergic cells in the retina of two elasmobranches, the lesser-spotted dogfish ( Scyliorhinus canicula) and the brown shyshark ( Haploblepharus fuscus) by using immunohistochemistry for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). Both antibodies revealed the same pattern of immunoreactivity and both species showed similar organization of GABAergic cells. GABAergic cells were first detected in neural retina of embryos at stage 26, which showed a neuroepithelial appearance without any layering. In stages 27–29 the retina showed similar organization but the number of neuroblastic GABAergic cells increased. When layering became apparent in the central retina ( stage-30 embryos), GABAergic cells mainly appeared organized in the outer and inner retina, and GABAergic processes and fibres were seen in the primordial inner plexiform layer (IPL), optic fibre layer and optic nerve stalk. In stage-32 embryos, layering was completed in the central retina, where immunoreactivity appeared in perikarya of the horizontal cell layer, inner nuclear layer and ganglion cell layer, and in numerous processes coursing in the IPL, optic fibre layer and optic nerve. From stage 32 to hatching ( stage 34), the layered retina extends from centre-to-periphery, recapitulating that observed in the central retina at earlier stages. In adults, GABA/GAD immunoreactivity disappears from the horizontal cell layer except in the marginal retina. Our results indicate that the source of GABA in the shark retina can be explained by its synthesis by GAD. Such synthesis precedes layering and synaptogenesis, thus supporting a developmental role for GABA in addition to act as neurotransmitter and neuromodulator.