New World primates have exceptionally high plasma levels of cortisol and other steroid hormones when compared with humans and other primates. It has been suggested that this difference can be explained by either low affinity or concentration of cellular steroid receptors. We have assessed cortisol availability in serum from several species of New and Old World primates under physiological conditions (whole serum at 37 degrees C). Measurements were made of total and free cortisol, corticosteroid-binding globulin (CBG) binding capacity and affinity for cortisol, distribution of cortisol in serum, and its binding to albumin. In agreement with earlier reports, plasma free cortisol levels in Old World primates, prosimians, and humans range from 10-300 nM. However, very high total plasma cortisol together with low CBG binding capacity and affinity result in free cortisol concentrations of 1-4 microM in some New World primates (squirrel monkey and marmosets) but not in others such as the titi and capuchin. In squirrel monkeys, free cortisol levels are far greater than might be predicted from the affinity of the glucocorticoid receptor estimated in cultured skin fibroblasts. In addition to low affinity, CBG from squirrel monkeys and other New World primates exhibits differences in electrophoretic mobility and sedimentation behavior in sucrose density ultracentrifugation, suggestive of a molecular weight that is approximately twice that of CBG from other species. Together with other data these results indicate that the apparent glucocorticoid resistance found in New World primates is a complex phenomenon that is not easily explained by present concepts of glucocorticoid action.