The contractile cells of the primitive heart are derived from a subpopulation of the lateral plate splanchnic mesoderm. While the formation of the cardiac primordia has been studied in the avian embryo, little is known about this cell population in the mammal. To investigate the distribution and cellular differentiation of the myocardial precursors in the early mammalian embryo, we studied the sequential immunohistochemical appearance of desmin and myosin in whole mounts of rat embryos from the presomite (gestational day 9) through the 6-8 somite, straight heart tube (gestational day 10) stages of early cardiac morphogenesis. In contrast to the chicken, and previous reports in the mouse, our results show that myogenic differentiation of the muscle precursor cells of the heart begins in the presomite embryo prior to formation of the anterior intestinal portal or foregut. In addition, this cell population of the precardiac mesoderm appears as a single crescent-shaped population of cells in continuity across the midline which extends caudally during development and then fuses in the midline to form the primitive heart tube. Unlike skeletal myogenesis, desmin and myosin appear simultaneously and are codistributed throughout this initial period of heart development. These results suggest that myocardial differentiation in the rat is precocious when compared to the chicken and precedes the morphogenetic processes involved in formation of the primitive heart tube. Furthermore, this study provides the first description in the mammal of the spatial distribution of the myogenic precardiac mesoderm.