Cyclic AMP is a ubiquitous second messenger that transduces signals from a variety of cell surface receptors to regulate diverse cellular functions, including secretion, metabolism and gene transcription. In pancreatic beta-cells, cAMP potentiates Ca2+-dependent exocytosis and mediates the stimulation of insulin release exerted by the hormones glucagon and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) (refs 4, 5-6). Whereas Ca2+ signals have been extensively characterized and shown to involve oscillations important for the temporal control of insulin secretion, the kinetics of receptor-triggered cAMP signals is unknown. Here we introduce a new ratiometric evanescent-wave-microscopy approach to measure cAMP concentration beneath the plasma membrane, and show that insulin-secreting beta-cells respond to glucagon and GLP-1 with marked cAMP oscillations. Simultaneous measurements of intracellular Ca2+ concentration revealed that the two messengers are interlinked and reinforce each other. Moreover, cAMP oscillations are capable of inducing rapid on-off Ca2+ responses, but only sustained elevation of cAMP concentration induces nuclear translocation of the catalytic subunit of the cAMP-dependent protein kinase. Our results establish a new signalling mode for cAMP and indicate that temporal encoding of cAMP signals might constitute a basis for differential regulation of downstream cellular targets.