Homozygous RAR beta mutants are growth-deficient, but are fertile and have a normal longevity. They display homeotic transformations and malformations of cervical vertebrae and a retrolenticular membrane. This latter abnormality arises from the persistence and hyperplasia of the primary vitreous body. In contrast, we found that abnormalities of cranial nerves IX and X which were previously proposed to be specific features of the RAR beta mutant phenotype (Luo et al., Mech. Dev. 53: 61-71, 1995) occur with the same low penetrance in wildtype littermates. Although the RAR beta protein is expressed at high levels in the striatum and interdigital mesenchyme, the brain and limbs of RAR beta mutants appear morphologically normal. RAR alpha/RAR beta double mutants display numerous visceral abnormalities, most of which are incompatible with post-natal life. The majority of these abnormalities was previously detected in RAR alpha/RAR beta2 mutants with the notable exceptions of agenesis of the stapedial (2nd aortic arch-derived) artery, thymic and spleen agenesis and abnormal inferior vena cava. RAR beta/RAR gamma double mutants show major ocular defects including a shortening of the ventral retina and pre-natal retinal dysplasia, both of which represent the only abnormalities of the fetal vitamin-A deficiency (VAD) syndrome not previously detected in RAR beta2/RAR gamma compound mutants. In addition, RAR beta is apparently functionally redundant with either RAR alpha or RAR gamma for the formation of a small subset of craniofacial skeletal elements, as well as for eyelid development and digit separation. We also provide evidence that, at least in some instances, this phenomenon of functional redundancy between RARs may be an artifactual consequence of gene knock-out.