The ontogeny of radioligand binding to N-methyl-D-aspartate and quisqualate receptors in rat forebrain was studied quantitatively using in vitro receptor autoradiography. Specific binding to both receptors could be detected by postnatal day 1 in hippocampus and striatum. The adult pattern of binding to N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors emerged by postnatal day 14 with high densities of binding in CA1 (stratum oriens and stratum radiatum), dentate gyrus (molecular layer) and striatum (caudate-putamen). Binding to the outer laminae of frontal cortex was as much as 45% above adult levels during development. Binding of [3H]amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid to quisqualate receptors showed a similar overshoot during development, but also manifested a unique distribution with CA3 and medial aspects of the amygdala exhibiting transient, intense labeling. Homogenate binding studies with [3H]amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid demonstrated a 73% increase in quisqualate receptors in whole brain at postnatal day 21 compared with adult levels. The selectivity of excitatory amino acid binding to the quisqualate site in development was similar to the selectivity in adult brain. These data taken with other recent reports, suggest that quisqualate receptors may have a role in development distinct from their function in the adult brain.