We examined the effects of the divalent cations Ca2+ and Mg2+ on inositol phosphate accumulation in bovine parathyroid cells prelabelled with [3H]inositol to determine whether the high extracellular Ca2+ and Mg2+-evoked transients in cytosolic Ca2+ in these cells might result from increases in cellular IP3 levels. In the presence of Li+, both Ca2+ and Mg2+ produced rapid, 2-6-fold increases in IP3 and IP2 and a linear increase in IP of 6-8-fold at 30 min. Smaller (1.5-2-fold) increases in IP2 and IP3 were evident within 7.5-15 s upon exposure to high (3 mM) Ca2+ in the absence of Li+. The relative potencies of Ca2+ and Mg2+ (Ca2+ 3-fold more potent than Mg2+) in elevating inositol phosphates were similar to those for their effects in inhibiting PTH release. Fluoride (5 and 10 mM) also produced similar increases in inositol phosphate accumulation, presumably through activation of phospholipase C by a guanine nucleotide (G) protein-dependent process. Thus, high extracellular Ca2+ and Mg2+-induced spikes in cytosolic Ca2+ in bovine parathyroid cells may be mediated by increases in IP3, perhaps through a receptor-mediated process linked to phospholipase C by a G-protein.