Background Calcium signals ([Ca2+]i) direct many aspects of embryo development but their regulation is not well characterised. Ryanodine receptors (RyRs) are a family of intracellular Ca2+ release channels that control the flux of Ca2+ from internal stores into the cytosol. RyRs are primarily known for their role in excitation-contraction coupling in adult striated muscle and ryr gene mutations are implicated in several human diseases. Current evidence suggests that RyRs do not have a major role to play prior to organogenesis but regulate tissue differentiation. Findings The sequences of the five zebrafish ryr genes were confirmed, their evolutionary relationship established and the primary sequences compared to other vertebrates, including humans. RyRs are differentially expressed in slow (ryr1a), fast (ryr3) and both types (ryr1b) of developing skeletal muscle. There are two ryr2 genes (ryr2a and ryr2b) which are expressed exclusively in developing CNS and cardiac tissue, respectively. In addition, ryr3 and ryr2a mRNA is detectable in the initial stages of development, prior to embryonic axis formation. Conclusions Our work reveals that zebrafish ryr genes are differentially expressed throughout the developing embryo from cleavage onwards. The data suggests that RyR-regulated Ca2+ signals are associated with several aspects of embryonic development, from organogenesis through to the differentiation of the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and nervous system. These studies will facilitate further work to explore the developmental function of RyRs in each of these tissue types.