Separated plasma and whole blood non-bicarbonate buffering capacities, together with plasma and gill carbonic anhydrase activities and endogenous plasma carbonic anhydrase inhibitor activity were investigated in three species of fish: the brown bullhead (Ameirus nebulosus), a teleost; the longnose skate (Raja rhina), an elasmobranch; and the spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei), a chimaeran. The objective was to test the hypothesis that species possessing gill membrane-bound carbonic anhydrase and/or plasma carbonic anhydrase activity would also exhibit high plasma nonbicarbonate buffering capacity relative to whole blood non-bicarbonate buffering capacity and would lack an endogenous plasma carbonic anhydrase inhibitor. Separated plasma non-bicarbonate buffering capacity constituted > or = 40% of whole-blood buffering in all three species. In addition, all species lacked an endogenous plasma carbonic anhydrase inhibitor. Separated plasma from skate and ratfish contained carbonic anhydrase activity, whereas bullhead plasma did not. Examination of the subcellular distribution and characteristics of branchial carbonic anhydrase activity revealed that the majority of branchial carbonic anhydrase activity originated from the cytoplasmic fraction in all species, with only 3-5% being associated with a microsomal fraction. The microsomal carbonic anhydrase activity of bullhead and ratfish was significantly reduced by washing, indicating the presence of carbonic anhydrase activity that was not integrally associated with the membrane pellet, microsomal carbonic anhydrase activity in skate was unaffected by washing. In addition, microsomal carbonic anhydrase activity from skate and ratfish but not bullhead gills was released to a significant extent from its membrane association by treatment with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C. The results obtained for skate are consistent with published data for dogfish, suggesting that the possession of branchial membrane-bound carbonic anhydrase activity may be a generalised elasmobranch characteristic. Ratfish, which also belong to the class Chondrichthyes, exhibited a similar pattern. Unlike skate and ratfish, bullhead exhibited high plasma non-bicarbonate buffering capacity and lacked an endogenous carbonic anhydrase inhibitor in the absence of plasma and gill membrane-bound carbonic anhydrase activities.