The effects of the peptide hormones glucagon, vasoactive intestinal peptide, and vasopressin on the microcirculation of single jejunal villi were studied in anesthetized rats. By means of a recently developed in vivo video-microscopy technique, the red blood cell velocity (pretreatment value: 2.1 +/- 0.1 mm X s-1) and the diameter of the red blood cell column (5.5 +/- 0.2 micron) were measured in the villous arcade vessels. From these parameters, an index of blood flow was calculated in order to determine changes in response to intravenous infusions of the peptides. During the infusions of glucagon and vasopressin, simultaneous measurements were made of superior mesenteric artery blood flow and villous arcade flow. Glucagon (1 microgram X kg-1 X min-1) increased villous arcade flow markedly to 150.1 +/- 13.7% of control, while superior mesenteric artery flow remained unchanged. Vasoactive intestinal peptide (1 microgram X kg-1 X min-1) produced a dilation of the arcade vessel with a commensurate reduction of red cell velocity, leaving the flow index unaltered. Vasopressin (14.3 mU X kg-1 X min-1) was found to be a potent vasoconstrictor at the mucosal level, and since red cell velocity also decreased, villous flow was reduced substantially, paralleling a reduction of superior mesenteric artery flow. After the vasopressin infusion, a reactive hyperemia occurred in the villous arcades. No such increase in blood flow was observed in the superior mesenteric artery. From these findings, we conclude that the villous microvasculature is influenced by various hormones and, therefore, must occupy a prominent position in control of the circulation of the small intestine.