Although visually evoked Mauthner cell (M-cell) startle responses occur in the goldfish, the afferent projections underlying these reactions have not been previously studied. We have recorded from the M-cell while stimulating the left optic nerve and/or right optic tectum and have traced projections of the optic nerve and restricted areas of the optic tectum using HRP histochemistry and autoradiography. Tectal stimulation elicits similar postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) in both M-cells. The responses recorded in the right (ipsilateral) cell were localized to its ventral dendrite. The existence of uncrossed tectal projections to the ventral dendrite was confirmed morphologically following application of horseradish peroxidase (HRP) to the optic tectum. The PSPs contained both inhibitory and excitatory components, but with adequate stimulus strength, excitation of either M-cell dominated. Thus, this pathway is probably sufficient to trigger visually evoked startle responses mediated by the M-cell. Stimulation of the left optic nerve also evoked PSPs capable of bringing both M-cells to threshold. The blockage of this response by conditioning stimulation of the right tectum suggests that the visual information is relayed to the M-cells through this structure. In support of these findings, no label was found near any portion of the M-cell after either intraocular injection of tritiated proline or application of HRP to the cut end of the optic nerve. In summary, visual input to the M-cell is mediated via projections from the tectum, is segregated onto the ventral dendrite, and is capable of bringing this neuron to threshold. This pathway presumably accounts for the demonstrated behavioral efficacy of visual stimuli in evoking a startle response.