A thermogenic organ is found beneath the brain of billfishes (Istiophoridae), swordfish (Xiphiidae) and the butterfly mackerel (Scombridae). The heater organ has been shown to warm the brain and eyes up to 14 degrees C above ambient water temperature. Heater cells are derived from extraocular muscle fibers and express a modified muscle phenotype with an extensive transverse-tubule (T-tubule) network and sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) enriched in Ca(2+)-ATPase (SERCA) pumps and ryanodine receptors (RyRs). Heater cells have a high mitochondria content but have lost most of the contractile myofilaments. Thermogenesis has been hypothesized to be associated with release and reuptake of Ca(2+). In this study, Ca(2+) fluxes in heater SR vesicles derived from blue marlin (Makaira nigricans) were measured using fura-2 fluorescence. Upon the addition of MgATP, heater SR vesicles rapidly sequestered Ca(2+). Uptake of Ca(2+) was thapsigargin sensitive, and maximum loading ranged between 0.8 micro mol Ca(2+) mg(-1) protein and 1.0 micro mol Ca(2+) mg(-1) protein. Upon the addition of 10 mmol l(-1) caffeine or 350 micro mol l(-1) ryanodine, heater SR vesicles released only a small fraction of the loaded Ca(2+). However, ryanodine could elicit a much larger Ca(2+) release event when the activity of the SERCA pumps was reduced. RNase protection assays revealed that heater tissue expresses an RyR isoform that is also expressed in fish slow-twitch skeletal muscle but is distinct from the RyR expressed in fish fast-twitch skeletal muscle. The heater and slow-twitch muscle RyR isoform has unique physiological properties. In the presence of adenine nucleotides, this RyR remains open even though cytoplasmic Ca(2+) is elevated, a condition that normally closes RyRs. The fast Ca(2+) sequestration by the heater SR, coupled with a physiologically unique RyR, is hypothesized to promote Ca(2+) cycling, ATP turnover and heat generation. A branch of the oculomotor nerve innervates heater organs, and, in this paper, we demonstrate that heater cells contain large 'endplate-like' clusters of acetylcholine receptors that appear to provide a mechanism for nervous control of thermogenesis.