The amphibian egg undergoes a rotation of its subcortical cytoplasm relative to its surface during the first cell cycle. Nile blue spots applied to the egg periphery move with the subcortical cytoplasm and make rotation directly observable (J.-P. Vincent, G.F. Oster, and J. C. Gerhart (1986). Dev. Biol. 113, 484). We have previously shown that the direction of rotation accurately predicts the orientation of the embryonic axis developed by the egg. This suggests an important role for subcortical rotation in axis specification. In this report, we provide two kinds of experimental evidence for the essential role of rotation, and against a role for other concurrent cytoplasmic movements such as the convergence of subcortical cytoplasm toward the sperm entry point in the animal hemisphere. First, dispermic eggs develop only one embryonic axis, which is oriented accurately in line with the direction of the single rotation movement and not with the two convergence foci that form in the animal hemisphere. Rotation probably modifies the vegetal, not animal, hemisphere since axial development is normal in dispermic eggs despite highly altered animal subcortical movement. Second, we show that the amount of rotation correlates with the extent of dorsal development. UV irradiation of the vegetal hemisphere, or cold shock of the egg, inhibits rotation effectively. When there is no rotation, there is no dorsal development. On average within the egg population, increasing amounts of rotation correlate with the increasingly anterior limit of the dorsal structures of the embryonic body axis. However, individual partially inhibited eggs vary greatly in the amount of axis formed following a given amount of movement. Furthermore, the egg normally rotates more than is necessary for the development of a complete axis. These findings suggest that rotation, although essential, does not directly pattern the antero-posterior dimension of the body axis, but triggers a response system which varies from egg to egg in its sensitivity to rotation. This system is artificially sensitized by exposure of the egg to D2O shortly before rotation. We show that D2O-treated eggs produce extensive axes despite very limited rotation, often developing into hyperdorsal embryos. However, like normal eggs, they depend on rotation and cannot form dorsal structures if it is eliminated.