Vitamin A and its metabolites are known to be involved in patterning the vertebrate embryo. Study of the effect of vitamin A on axial skeletal patterning has been hindered by the fact that deficient embryos do not survive past midgestation. In this study, pregnant vitamin A-deficient rats were maintained on a purified diet containing limiting amounts of all-trans retinoic acid (12 microg atRA/g diet) and given a daily oral bolus dose of retinol starting at embryonic day 0.5, 8.25, 8.5, 8.75, 9.25, 9.5, 9.75, or 10.5. Embryos were recovered at E21.5 for analysis of the skeleton and at earlier times for analysis of select mRNAs. Normal axial skeletal development and patterning were observed in embryos from pregnant animals receiving retinol starting on or before E8.75. Delay of retinol supplementation to E9.5 or later resulted in a marked increase in both occurrence and severity of skeletal malformations, extending from the craniocervical to sacral regions. Embryos from the groups receiving retinol starting at E9.5 and E9.75 had one-vertebral anterior transformations of the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral vertebrae. Few embryos survived in the E10.5 group, but these embryos yielded the most severe and extensive anteriorization events. The skeletal alterations seen in vitamin A deficiency are associated with posterior shifts in the mesodermal expression of Hoxa-4, Hoxb-3, Hoxd-3, Hoxd-4, and Hoxa-9 mRNAs, whereas the anterior domains of Hoxb-4 and Cdx2 expression are unaltered. This work defines a critical window of development in the late gastrula-stage embryo when vitamin A is essential for normal axial skeletal patterning and shows that vitamin A deficiency causes anterior homeotic transformations extending from the cervical to lumbosacral regions.