Sodium warfarin was administered daily to Sprague-Dawley rats from gestational day 8 to day 22 to examine the effects of this compound on the developing fetal skeleton and on the vitamin K-dependent bone and cartilage proteins. At a dose of 175 micrograms/kg of sodium warfarin there was a 43% mortality rate among the dams. Maternal prothrombin times and serum osteocalcin levels were slightly elevated but not significantly. In the surviving litters, fetal bone osteocalcin and gamma-carboxyglutamic acid were significantly reduced (50 and 57%, respectively, on gestational day 22) when compared to age- and/or weight-matched control pups. The high correlation of osteocalcin content in long bone (R = 0.64) and calvariae (R = 0.77) to fetal body weight observed in control fetuses was not seen in the warfarin-exposed pups. Examination of alizarin-stained warfarin-exposed fetal skeletons for ossification centers showed no difference from controls. However, analysis of the tibial growth showed several changes compared to control that included (1) widened hypertrophic zones, (2) increased calcification of the hypertrophic zones, and (3) disorganization of the hypertrophic cells. These results suggest that the growth plate abnormalities seen with prenatal warfarin exposure relate to the inhibition of the vitamin K-dependent proteins of the skeletal system.