The ligand binding properties of the hemoglobins of several deep-sea, bottom-living fish have been examined. These include five species of rattails (Macrouridae) and Antimora rostrata, all of which possess swimbladders, and two unrelated species without swimbladders, Bathysaurus mollis and Alepocephalus sp. All of the hemolysates of these fish exhibited the Root effect with a minimum ligand affinity at about pH 6 in the presence of organic phosphate. Under these conditions the hemolysates from fish which possess swimbladders exhibit two roughly equal populations of heme groups with markedly different ligand affinities. For the deeper-dwelling species the affinities for carbon monoxide differ by some 500-fold, the low-affinity population having a p50(CO) of 100 mmHg at 15 degrees C. This very low affinity is associated with a second-order rate constant for CO combination of the order of 10(3) M-1 X s-1. Those species without swimbladders have hemoglobins which do not have such heterogeneous binding sites, suggesting a relationship between these very-low-affinity heme groups and the pumping of oxygen into a swimbladder at high hydrostatic pressures.