Genetic variability in plasma melatonin concentrations in ewes results from variations in pineal weight. This study investigated whether it is due to a difference in the number of pinealocytes, or in their size. Two groups of lambs were assigned before birth to being extremes (18 High and 21 Low) by calculating their genetic value on the basis of the melatonin concentrations of their parents. Lambs were bled from 1 week of age until 14 weeks of age. Pineal gland, brain and pituitary weights, length and width of the brain, and length of the hypothalamus were recorded. A significant effect (ANOVA) of genetic group (P<0.05) and age (P<0.05) was detected on mean nocturnal plasma melatonin concentrations, as soon as the first week after birth (mean +/- s.e.m.; High: 51.7 +/- 10.7 vs Low: 31.9 +/- 3.2 pg/ml). There was no difference between the two genetic groups in any of the brain parameters measured, but the pineal glands of the High group were heavier and contained significantly more pinealocytes (High: 27.8 +/- 2.4 vs Low: 21.0 +/- 2.4 x 10(6); P<0.05) than those in the Low group. The mean size of pinealocytes did not differ between the two genetic groups. Thus, the genetic variability in nocturnal plasma melatonin concentrations in sheep is expressed by 1 week of age and higher levels of secretion are the consequence of larger pineal glands containing a greater number of pinealocytes.