Motilins purified from porcine and canine intestine differ in their amino acid composition in positions 7-8-12-13-14. We studied in vitro the contractile response of longitudinal duodenal muscles from various animals (guinea pig, rabbit, dog) to porcine and canine synthetic motilins. Both substances failed to elicit contraction of the guinea pig duodenum but were active and equally potent on rabbit muscle. In dogs, porcine motilin was inactive at the concentrations tested (up to 10(-4) M) whereas canine motilin induced duodenal contractions in a dose-response fashion (mean dose required to induce half-maximal response: 4.82 +/- 0.25 X 10(-5) M). The contraction generated by synthetic canine motilin (10(-5) M) was not influenced by atropine, hexamethonium, tetrodotoxin, naloxone, or sodium nitroprusside (all used at 10(-4) M) but was blocked by verapamil (10(-4)). Our study shows that species-related structural alterations in motilin molecules generate different bioactive capacities in some animal species, suggests that the middle portion of the molecule is important for its bioactive expression, suggests the presence of motilin receptors on canine duodenal muscle, and suggests that an influx of extracellular calcium is involved in the canine duodenal muscle contraction elicited by canine motilin.