We have investigated the onset and maturation of action potential- and calcium-induced calcium release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum during the differentiation of excitation-contraction coupling in skeletal muscle. Microfluorometry and video imaging of cultured myotubes loaded with the fluorescent calcium indicator fluo-3 revealed the dynamics, time course, and physiological properties of calcium transients as well as their changes during development. Spontaneous and stimulated contractions in well-differentiated myotubes are accompanied by brief (200-500 ms) increases in the concentration of free cytoplasmic calcium. These transients are modulated by sub-threshold concentrations of caffeine, resulting in a plateau of elevated calcium. Two novel types of calcium transients were observed in non-contracting myotubes. 1) Fast localized transients (FLTs) are radially restricted focal release events that occur spontaneously within the myoplasm at various densities and frequencies. 2) Upon addition of caffeine, propagating calcium waves are generated (35-70 microns/s velocity), which are accompanied by contractures. Aside from caffeine sensitivity, calcium waves and contraction-related sustained release events are similar in amplitude and duration, as well as in their inactivation and refractory properties. Thus, these transients may represent calcium-induced calcium release in quiescent and active myotubes, respectively. Following one calcium-induced calcium release event, myotubes become refractory to new calcium-induced transients; however, action potential-induced transients and FLTs are not blocked. This suggests that these transients occur by distinct release mechanisms and that dual modes of calcium release exist prior to the coupling of calcium release to excitation.