Melatonin decreases in the plasma of Rana catesbeiana (bullfrog) tadpoles at the climax of metamorphosis when the thyroxine (T(4)) level peaks. Since melatonin inhibited thyroid function in vitro, it would be of interest to determine if the decline in plasma melatonin permits greater thyroid hormone secretion, or if the increasing levels of T(4) cause the climactic decrease in plasma melatonin. The reciprocal effects of administering T(4) or melatonin just prior to metamorphic climax were examined in tadpoles kept at 22 degrees C on an 18L:6D cycle. If melatonin functions as a thyroid antagonist at later metamorphic stages, administration of melatonin should decrease plasma T(4), whereas if T(4) causes the decline in plasma melatonin, T(4) treatment of tadpoles prior to climax should induce the climactic melatonin decrease prematurely. Once daily injection of 40 microg melatonin for 5 days at 19.30 h had no effect on metamorphic progress, or on plasma T(4) or melatonin levels, except for a transient rise in melatonin just after the injection. Immersion in 2.2x10(-4) M melatonin for 6 days accelerated metamorphosis and decreased plasma melatonin, but had no effect on plasma T(4). Administration of T(4) by injection of 0.2 microg, or immersion in a 6.3x10(-8) M solution accelerated metamorphosis more than melatonin immersion, raised plasma T(4) to climax levels, and induced a decrease in plasma melatonin. We conclude that rapid clearance of exogenous melatonin from the circulation in these experiments did not allow it to affect plasma T(4), and that there is clear evidence that the rise in T(4) induces the climax decrease in plasma melatonin. The finding that immersion in a high level of melatonin can lower plasma melatonin and accelerate metamorphosis, whereas a single daily injection does not, provides an explanation for some of the contradictory reports in the literature concerning melatonin's effect on tadpole metamorphic progress.