The Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) includes the closely related species M. avium, M. intracellulare and M. paratuberculosis. The insertion elements IS900, IS901, IS1245 and IS1311 were used as DNA probes to characterize by restriction fragment polymorphisms (RFLPs) eight reference strains, three animal isolates of M. paratuberculosis from outside New Zealand and 61 selected New Zealand MAC isolates from cattle, deer, pigs, sheep and humans. IS900 was found only in strains of M. paratuberculosis. All MAC strains contained IS1311 and the RFLPs associated with this insertion element divided M. paratuberculosis strains into the same groups as IS900 RFLPs. Except for M. paratuberculosis, all MAC strains contained IS1245 and the majority of those from lesions in cattle, deer and pigs also contained IS901. All animal strains containing IS901 had the same RFLPs with IS901, IS1245 and IS1311. In three cases, these apparently identical strains could be differentiated by restriction fragment analysis with BstEII. IS901 was not present in four human isolates or in isolates from deer without lesions. These results indicate that a very closely related group of strains causes the majority of non-paratuberculosis MAC lesions in animals in New Zealand.