Reptiles, particularly snakes, exhibit large and quantitatively similar increments in metabolic rate during muscular exercise and following a meal, when they are apparently inactive. The cardiovascular responses are similar during these two states, but the underlying autonomic control of the heart remains unknown. We describe both adrenergic and cholinergic tonus on the heart during rest, during enforced activity and during digestion (24-36 h after ingestion of 30 % of their body mass) in the snake Boa constrictor. The snakes were equipped with an arterial catheter for measurements of blood pressure and heart rate, and autonomic tonus was determined following infusion of the beta-adrenergic antagonist propranolol (3 mg kg(-1)) and the muscarinic cholinoceptor antagonist atropine (3 mg kg(-1)). The mean heart rate of fasting animals at rest was 26.4+/-1.4 min(-1), and this increased to 36.1+/-1.4 min(-1) (means +/- S.E.M.; N=8) following double autonomic block (atropine and propranolol). The calculated cholinergic and adrenergic tones were 60.1+/-9.3 % and 19.8+/-2.2 %, respectively. Heart rate increased to 61.4+/-1.5 min(-1) during enforced activity, and this response was significantly reduced by propranolol (maximum values of 35.8+/-1.6 min(-1)), but unaffected by atropine. The cholinergic and adrenergic tones were 2.6+/-2.2 and 41.3+/-1.9 % during activity, respectively. Double autonomic block virtually abolished tachycardia associated with enforced activity (heart rate increased significantly from 36.1+/-1.4 to 37.6+/-1.3 min(-1)), indicating that non-adrenergic, non-cholinergic effectors are not involved in regulating heart rate during activity. Blood pressure also increased during activity. Digestion was accompanied by an increase in heart rate from 25.6+/-1.3 to 47.7+/-2.2 min(-1) (N=8). In these animals, heart rate decreased to 44.2+/-2.7 min(-1) following propranolol infusion and increased to 53.9+/-1.8 min(-1) after infusion of atropine, resulting in small cholinergic and adrenergic tones (6.0+/-3.5 and 11.1+/-1.1 %, respectively). The heart rate of digesting snakes was 47.0+/-1.0 min(-1) after double autonomic blockade, which is significantly higher than the value of 36.1+/-1.4 min(-1) in double-blocked fasting animals at rest. Therefore, it appears that some other factor exerts a positive chronotropic effect during digestion, and we propose that this factor may be a circulating regulatory peptide, possibly liberated from the gastrointestinal system in response to the presence of food.