We have previously described an antigen (termed 2B1) on rat spermatozoa that is present on the plasma membrane overlying the tail domain. The antigen is mobile within the plane of the plasma membrane and a mAb to it blocks fertilization in vitro. In the present study we describe some dynamic properties of this antigen in relation to its topographical distribution. When spermatozoa were incubated in vitro in a capacitation medium and stained with 2B1 mAb/FITC-rabbit anti-mouse F(ab')2, strong fluorescence appeared over the acrosomal domain. Acute exposure of fresh spermatozoa to dissociating reagents (1 M NaCl or 5 mM 2-mercaptoethanol) or inducers of the acrosome reaction (lysolecithin + Ca2+ or A23187 + Ca2+) failed to mimic these effects. Spermatozoa prelabeled with FITC-2B1 IgG and then capacitated in the presence of excess "cold" 2B1 IgG also showed accumulation of fluorescence on the acrosomal domain, suggesting that the antigen had migrated from the tail. Migration was selective and Ca2(+)- and temperature-dependent but was not inhibited by metabolic poisons (NaF or NaN3). Motility was not obligatory for migration. Immunogold-labeling studies at the ultrastructural level showed that 2B1 antigen was restricted to the surface membrane over both the tail and the acrosomal domains and that during migration it did not change the type of membrane into which it was inserted. From a quantitative analysis of fluorescence on spermatozoa prelabeled with FITC-2B1 IgG and then capacitated, the amount of antigen that appeared on the acrosomal domain was approximately equivalent to that lost from the midpiece domain. The Mr of 2B1 antigen extracted from capacitated spermatozoa was 300-500 Da less than that extracted from noncapacitated cells, suggesting that the molecule had undergone processing concomitant with migration. These results are discussed in relation to mechanisms for targeting antigens to sites where they become physiologically active and are correctly positioned to participate in gamete recognition processes.