The possible interactions between inhibitory vagal control of the heart and circulating levels of catecholamines in dogfish (Squalus acanthias) were studied using an in situ preparation of the heart, which retained intact its innervation from centrally cut vagus nerves. The response to peripheral vagal stimulation typically consisted of an initial cardiac arrest, followed by an escape beat, leading to renewed beating at a mean heart rate lower than the prestimulation rate (partial recovery). Cessation of vagal stimulation led to a transient increase in heart rate, above the prestimulation rate. This whole response was completely abolished by 10(-4) M atropine (a muscarinic cholinergic antagonist). The degree of vagal inhibition was evaluated in terms of both the initial, maximal cardiac interval and the mean heart rate during partial recovery, both expressed as a percentage of the prestimulation heart rate. The mean prestimulation heart rate of this preparation (36 +/- 4 beats min(-1)) was not affected by noradrenaline but was significantly reduced by 10(-4) M nadolol (a beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist), suggesting the existence of a resting adrenergic tone arising from endogenous catecholamines. The degree of vagal inhibition of heart rate varied with the rate of stimulation and was increased by the presence of 10(-8) M noradrenaline (the normal in vivo level in routinely active fish), while 10(-7) M noradrenaline (the in vivo level measured in disturbed or deeply hypoxic fish) reduced the cardiac response to vagal stimulation. In the presence of 10(-7) M noradrenaline, 10(-4) M nadolol further reduced the vagal response, while 10(-4) M nadolol + 10(-4) M phentolamine had no effect, indicating a complex interaction between adrenoreceptors, possibly involving presynaptic modulation of vagal inhibition.