Hair cells in the vertebrate cochlea are arranged tonotopically with their characteristic frequency (CF), the sound frequency to which they are most sensitive, changing systematically with position. Single mechanotransducer channels of hair cells were characterized at different locations in the turtle cochlea. In 2.8 mM external Ca2+, the channel's chord conductance was 118 pS (range 80-163 pS), which nearly doubled (range 149-300 pS) on reducing Ca2+ to 50 microM. In both Ca2+ concentrations, the conductance was positively correlated with hair cell CF. Variation in channel conductance can largely explain the increases in size of the macroscopic transducer current and speed of adaptation with CF. It suggests diversity of transducer channel structure or environment along the cochlea that may be an important element of its tonotopic organization.