In situ hybridization was used to document the distribution of mRNA encoding six subunit isoforms of non-N-methyl D-aspartic acid (NMDA) glutamate receptors (GluR1, GluR2, GluR3, GluR4, GluR5 and GluR6) in the inner ears of embryonic, postnatal and adult rats. GluR2 and GluR3 expression in the spiral ganglion appeared well before birth, and reached adult levels several days before the onset of function in the cochlea. In the spiral limbus, expression of GluR2 and GluR3 mRNA reached very high levels at around the time of birth, then declined after a few days. Low levels of GluR1, GluR4 and GluR6 expression were detected in various tissues of the cochlea during development. In the adult cochlea, GluR expression was limited to GluR2 and GluR3 mRNAs in the spiral ganglion neurons and GluR2 mRNA in fibrocytes of the spiral limbus, a non-neural tissue. The ontogenetic expression of additional GluR subunit genes and their appearance in different cochlear tissues could reflect different roles for these genes during development, or less precise regulation of gene expression within the GluR family. In particular, the very high levels of GluR gene expression in the spiral limbus during the perinatal period support a non-neural function, perhaps as cell surface receptors during tissue differentiation.