Swainsonine, a plant toxin, strongly inhibits certain alpha-D-mannosidases but has no effect on others [D. R. P. Tulsiani, T. M. Harris, and O. Touster (1982) J. Biol. Chem. 257, 7936-7939]. The reversible inhibition of jack bean and lysosomal alpha-D-mannosidases has previously been suggested to be similar in nature but quite complex. Specific differences in the action of swainsonine on these two enzymes and on Golgi mannosidase II are reported. (a) The inhibition of the jack bean mannosidase, but not rat liver lysosomal alpha-D-mannosidase or Golgi mannosidase II, is increased by preincubation with the alkaloid. (b) The inhibition of the jack bean and lysosomal enzymes, but not mannosidase II, is competitive at inhibitor concentrations of less than or equal to 0.5 microM. (c) The inhibition of jack bean alpha-mannosidase is largely irreversible, its very limited reversibility being partially dependent upon the swainsonine concentration used and on the time of preincubation with the inhibitor. On the other hand, the inhibition of lysosomal alpha-mannosidase is largely reversible, as shown by dilution experiments and by the use of [3H]swainsonine. Golgi mannosidase II shows intermediate reversibility, the results indicating two modes of binding; one rapid and irreversible, the other much slower and reversible.