The cellular injury produced by reperfusion of ischemic tissue with oxygen-rich blood has been studied in numerous tissues but has not been investigated extensively in thermoregulatory tissue. This study was designed (a) to compare 4 and 6 hours of ischemia to document the evidence of impaired capillary perfusion after resumption of blood flow (reperfusion injury) in a thermoregulatory end organ (the rabbit ear), and (b) to examine, with use of vital capillaroscopy (VC) and laser Doppler flowmetry (LDF), the altered microvascular blood flow in the rabbit ear after ischemia and reperfusion. One ear from each of five rabbits underwent warm ischemia for 4 hours. VC showed no deficits of capillary perfusion in these ears after reperfusion; LDF measurements in both ears also demonstrated no significant difference between control and reperfusion blood flow. One ear from each of eight additional rabbits underwent 6 hours of warm ischemia. LDF values were significantly reduced in the ischemic ear after reperfusion as compared with baseline measurements for that ear and as compared with the control ear. VC showed arrested perfusion and static plasma gaps within three to five capillaries per high-power field (an area of 300 x 500 microns) in the ischemic ear and good perfusion of all vessels in the contralateral control ear. This evidence of reperfusion injury in a thermoregulatory end organ may help to explain the poor functional result that often occurs after replantation of an amputated digit.