The propagation and coordination of lymphatic contractions were studied in the mesentery of the rat small intestine using in situ microscopic observation. Indexes of lymphatic diameter were simultaneously measured at two adjacent lymphangions in spontaneously contracting lymphatics (n = 51). Diameter index, contraction frequency, and the percentage of the intersegmental contractions that were propagated and coordinated (PP) were determined at both sites. The conduction velocity of the contractile activity and the percentage of the coordinated contractions that were propagated both antegrade to the direction of lymph flow and retrograde to the flow stream were determined. The results indicate that 1) 80-90% of the lymphatic contractions in the vessels we evaluated were propagated, 2) the wave of contractile activity propagated both centrally and peripherally, and 3) the conduction velocity of the contractile activity was approximately 4-8 mm/s. We tested the hypothesis that gap junctional communication is responsible for the coordination of the contractile event. To accomplish this, we used the gap junction blockers n-heptanol and oleic acid. PP was 90 +/- 4% under normal conditions and fell to a minimum value of 55 +/- 7% during the gap junction blockade. These results indicate that gap junctional communication played an important role in the propagation and coordination of contractions that occurred in spontaneously active lymphatics.