Although a variety of lymphoid and myeloid precursors can generate thymic dendritic cells (DCs) under defined experimental conditions, the developmental origin(s) of DCs in the steady state thymus is unknown. Having previously used selective combinations of normal, parabiotic, and radioablated mice to demonstrate that blood-borne prothymocytes are imported in a gated and competitive manner, we used a similar approach in this study to investigate the importation of the hematogenous precursors of thymic DCs. The results indicate that two developmentally distinct populations of DC precursors normally enter the adult mouse thymus. The first population is indistinguishable from prothymocytes according to the following criteria: 1) inefficient (<20%) exchange between parabiotic partners; 2) gated importation by the thymus; 3) competitive antagonism for intrathymic niches; 4) temporally linked generation of thymocytes and CD8alpha(high) DCs; and 5) absence from prothymocyte-poor blood samples. The second population differs diametrically from prothymocytes in each of these properties, and appears to enter the thymus in at least a partially differentiated state. The resulting population of DCs has a CD8alpha(-/low) phenotype, and constitutes approximately 50% of total thymic DCs. The presence of two discrete populations of DCs in the steady state thymus implies functional heterogeneity consistent with evidence implicating lymphoid DCs in the negative selection of effector thymocytes and myeloid DCs in the positive selection of regulatory thymocytes.