The sensory dark current of vertebrate retinal rods is believed to be controlled by light activation of a chain of coupled biochemical cycles that finally regulate the cationic conductance of the plasma membrane by hydrolytically reducing the level of cGMP in rod outer segment cytoplasm. The scheme has been tested by measuring heat production by live frog retinas when stimulated with sequences of light flashes of progressively increasing energy. Using pyroelectric poly(vinylidene 1,1-difluoride) detectors that simultaneously measure transretinal voltage and retinal temperature change, four heat effects assignable to known biochemical cycles in rods have been found. As the dark current shuts down after a flash causing 180-1800 rhodopsin photoisomerizations per rod, a heat burst, q1, raises the retinal temperature 1-2 microK. q1 is closely regulated in size and slightly precedes dark current shutdown. Isobutylmethylxanthine slows and enlarges q1, delaying the dark-current response. Increasing cytoplasmic Ca2+ stops the dark current without affecting q1. Although rod heat production is consistent with splitting of 1-3 microM of free cytoplasmic cGMP during transduction, the kinetics of the two processes do not match the predictions of current cGMP control models.