We compared the ultrastructure and synaptic targets of terminals of cortical or retinal origin in the stratum griseum superficiale and stratum opticum of the rat superior colliculus. Following injections of biotinylated dextran amine into cortical area 17, corticotectal axons were labeled by anterograde transport. Corticotectal axons were of relatively small caliber with infrequent small varicosities. At the ultrastructural level, corticotectal terminals were observed to be small profiles (0.44 +/- 0.27 microm(2)) that contained densely packed round vesicles. In tissue stained for gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) using postembedding immunocytochemical techniques, corticotectal terminals were found to contact small (0.51 +/- 0.69 microm(2)) non-GABAergic dendrites and spines (93%) and a few small GABAergic dendrites (7%). In the same tissue, retinotectal terminals, identified by their distinctive pale mitochondria, were observed to be larger than corticotectal terminals (3.34 +/- 1.79 microm(2)). In comparison to corticotectal terminals, retinotectal terminals contacted larger (1.59 +/- 1.70 microm(2)) non-GABAergic dendrites and spines (73%) and a larger proportion of GABAergic profiles (27%) of relatively large size (2.17 +/- 1.49 microm(2)), most of which were vesicle-filled (71%). Our results suggest that cortical and retinal terminals target different dendritic compartments within the neuropil of the superficial layers of the superior colliculus.