Active salmonids maintain myocardial contractility at temperatures that are cardioplegic for mammals. We postulated that myofibrillar Ca2+ sensitivity in the trout heart might 1) exhibit lower temperature dependence and/or 2) be greater over the range of physiological temperatures. Temperature-induced changes in intracellular pH may also play a role as alkalosis typically increases calcium affinity of myofibrillar adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase). Ca2+ sensitivities of ventricular myofibrillar ATPase were determined in rats and in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) over a physiological range of pH and temperatures. Maximal myofibrillar ATPase activities of each species were similar and equally affected by temperature. Trout myofibrillar ATPase lost Ca2+ dependence at 37 degrees C. At constant pH, reduced temperature decreased calcium affinity more in trout (0.35 pCa/10 degrees C) than in rat (0.08-0.16 pCa/10 degrees C). Under alpha-stat conditions, the effects of temperature were reduced in both trout (0.2 pCa/10 degrees C) and rat (no significant effect). Over trout physiological temperatures, Ca2+ sensitivity was greater than rat at 37 degrees C. Qualitatively similar results were observed in studies measuring tension in skinned trout ventricular fibers. One mechanism by which the trout heart is able to maintain contractility at low temperatures is through the inherent higher Ca2+ sensitivity of the contractile element compared with mammalian species.