Cold acclimation (4 degrees C) and "cafeteria diets" increased the thermic response of rats to catecholamines. This phenomenon was accompanied by six- to eightfold increases of interscapular brown adipose tissue (IBAT) weight, total tissue cytochrome oxidase activity, and total number of brown adipocytes. Quantitative radioautographic experiments using [3H]thymidine disclosed that cold exposure markedly enhanced the mitotic activity in blood capillaries and small-venule endothelial cells, adipose tissue interstitial cells, and preadipocytes rather than in fully differentiated brown adipocytes. IBAT mitotic index increased 70 times over control values after only 2 days of cold exposure. Thereafter, the proliferative activity progressively decreased. IBAT cell composition was modified during cold acclimation as the percentage of interstitial cells and preadipocytes increased over the other cellular types. Because brown adipose tissue is the principal site of norepinephrine-induced thermogenesis in homeothermal animals, it is suggested that brown adipocyte proliferation from precursor cells represents the fundamental phenomenon explaining the increased capacity of cold-acclimated animals to respond calorigenically to catecholamines.