Because brown adipose tissue lipids are the preferred substrate for thermogenesis during arousal from hibernation, the fatty acid composition of brown fat lipids was followed during cold acclimation and during a hibernation bout. In control golden hamsters (living at 22 degrees C), the fatty acid composition of the white adipose tissue closely resembled that of the food, but brown adipose tissue contained more animal-derived fatty acids. As an effect of acclimation to cold, the fatty acid composition of brown adipose tissue changed to resemble that of the food, and no marked differences between white and brown adipose tissue were then evident. During a hibernation bout, a major part of the fatty acids accumulated in brown fat during entry into hibernation consisted of "rare" acids, such as homo-gamma-linoleic acid. Homo-gamma-linoleic, together with eicosadienoic acid and lignoceric acid, was preferentially utilized during the early phase of arousal. During this phase, "bulk" fatty acids, such as linoleic acid, were spared, whereas in late arousal, linoleic acid was the preferred substrate. It was concluded that rare fatty acids are of quantitative significance in brown adipose tissue during hibernation and arousal.