In many capillary exchange beds, blood flow is locally regulated by precapillary sphincter-like activity. In this study, we used intravascular tracers and scanning electron microscopy to investigate precapillary blood flow regulation in the mouse ear. Gelatin ink injections of the normal mouse ear demonstrated 6.8 +/- 2.3 axial vessels with a cutoff of detectable tracer in the early branches: 19 +/- 11 focal constrictions were observed along the 1st to 5th order branches of the axial vessels. A perfusion tracer consisting of biotinylated anti-endothelial lectins (Ricinus Communis Agglutin, Lycopersicon Esculentum and Griffonia Simplicifolia) was circulated for 30 min under physiological conditions. Subsequent enzyme histochemistry demonstrated no significant change in distal perfusion or in the number of focal constrictions (P > 0.05). Furthermore, the focal constrictions were unresponsive to vasodilators such as organic nitrates and prostaglandin E1. By contrast, the presence of oxazolone-induced inflammation resulted in significant and sustained vasodilatation for more than 96 h (P > 0.001). Scanning electron microscopy demonstrated discrete constricting bands morphologically distinct from known precapillary sphincters. These results suggest that these previously unappreciated inflammation-responsive precapillary constrictors regulate capillary recruitment in the mouse ear microcirculation.