Retinol esterified with long-chain fatty acids is a common dietary source of vitamin A. Hydrolysis of these esters in the lumen of the small intestine is required prior to absorption. Bile salt-stimulated retinyl esterase activity was present with purified rat intestinal brush border membrane, with the maximum rate of ester hydrolysis at approximately pH 8, the physiological luminal pH. Taurocholate, a trihydroxy bile salt, stimulated hydrolysis of short-chain fatty acyl retinyl esters more than hydrolysis of long-chain fatty acyl esters. Deoxycholate, a dihydroxy bile salt, primarily stimulated hydrolysis of long-chain esters. Calculated Kms of 0.74 microM for retinyl palmitate (16:0) hydrolysis and 9.6 microM for retinyl caproate (6:0) hydrolysis suggested the presence of two separate activities. Consistent with that, the activity responsible for retinyl caproate hydrolysis could be inactivated to a greater degree than retinyl palmitate hydrolysis by preincubation of the brush border membrane at 37 degrees C for extended times. Brush border membrane from animals who had undergone common duct ligation 48 h prior to tissue collection showed little ability to hydrolyze retinyl caproate but retained 70% of retinyl palmitate hydrolytic activity, compared to sham-operated controls. Thus, two distinguishable retinyl esterase activities were recovered with purified brush border membranes. One apparently originated from the pancreas, was stimulated by trihydroxy bile salts, and preferentially hydrolyzed short-chain retinyl esters, properties similar to cholesterol ester hydrolase, known to bind to the brush border. The other was intrinsic to the brush border, stimulated by both trihydroxy and dihydroxy bile salts, and preferentially hydrolyzed long-chain retinyl esters, providing the majority of activity of the brush border against dietary retinyl esters.