This study assessed the histological changes in the epidermis of guppies Poecilia reticulata induced by waterborne zinc (Zn). Laboratory-reared P. reticulata fry were maintained individually in separate vessels containing artificial water (8 microg l(-1) Zn) to which 0, 15, 30, 60 or 120 microg l(-1) Zn was added. Their epidermal response to Zn was monitored regularly over 4 weeks. Compared with controls, mucus was rapidly released and mucous cell numbers decreased at all concentrations. Thereafter mucous release, epidermal thickness, numbers and size of mucous cells fluctuated at a rate that varied with Zn concentration, but fluctuations declined after day 18. Results clearly highlight the dynamic nature of the epidermal response to sublethal concentrations of waterborne Zn. In general, low concentrations of Zn induced a rapid response with reduced numbers and size of mucous cells and shift in mucin composition, and a subsequent thickening of the epidermis. Epidermal thickness and mucous cell area fluctuated over time but were normal after a month of exposure to low Zn concentrations. The number of mucous cells, however, remained low. Virtually all mucous cells from fish maintained in 15 and 60 microg l(-1) Zn contained acidic mucins throughout the month, whereas fish maintained at 30 microg l(-1) Zn responded by production of neutral mucins during the first 12 days followed by a mixture of neutral and acidic mucins. At 120 microg l(-1) Zn, the most dramatic effects were the gradual but sustained decrease in numbers and area of mucous cells, and the shift to acidic mucins in these cells. Thus, as concentration of Zn increased, the epidermal responses indicated a disturbed host response (dramatic decline in mucous cell numbers, with mixed composition of mucins), which may have been less effective in preventing Zn uptake across the epithelium.