1. This study examined the hypothesis that the anxiolytic effects of benzodiazepine (BZ (omega)) receptor ligands may be associated with actions at a defined receptor subtype and/or their level of intrinsic activity using the mouse defense test battery. 2. This test has been designed to assess defensive reactions of Swiss mice confronted with a natural threat (a rat) and situations associated with this threat. Primary measures taken before, during and after rat confrontation were escape attempts, flight, risk assessment and defensive threat and attack. 3. The drugs used were the non-selective BZ (omega) receptor full agonist diazepam, the non-selective BZ (omega) receptor partial agonist bretazenil and the beta-carboline abecarnil which acts as a full agonist on GABAA receptors containing the alpha 1- and the alpha 3-subunits and as a partial agonist at receptors containing the alpha 2- and the alpha 5-subunits. The drugs were given alone and diazepam was co-administered with either bretazenil or abecarnil. 4. When administered alone, diazepam attenuated several defensive responses including risk assessment activities, defensive threat/attack reactions upon forced contact with the rat and escape attempts following the removal of the rat from the apparatus. Unlike diazepam, bretazenil was devoid of significant activity on defense and abecarnil displayed depressant activity. 5. Bretazenil blocked all behavioral effects of diazepam on defense behaviors. The co-administration of diazepam and abecarnil produced a behavioral profile similar to that observed when diazepam was administered alone, indicating that abecarnil did not influence the effects of diazepam on defense. By contrast, diazepam completely antagonized the sedative effects of abecarnil. 6. These findings indicate that only BZ (omega) ligands with high intrinsic efficacy at all BZ (omega) receptor subtypes display clear and specific effects on defensive behaviors in mice, and suggest that GABAA receptors containing the alpha 3 subunit might represent the primary target involved in the modulatory action of diazepam on defensive behaviors.