The physiological changes in male rats during acclimation were studied following direct or stepwise exposure to heat (32.5 degrees C) in a controlled-environment room. The animals were exposed to each temperature for 10 days beginning at 24.5 degrees C and returning to 24.5 degrees C in the reverse order of initial exposure. Relative humidity of 50 +/- 2% and a 12-h light-dark photoperiod (light from 0900 to 2100 h) were maintained. Physiological changes in metabolic rate (MR), evaporative water loss (EWL), plasma corticosterone, body water turnover, and food and water intake were measured. The results indicate a significantly (P less than 0.001) elevated plasma corticosterone and MR in rats exposed directly to heat from control temperature (24.5 degrees C) but not in those animals exposed stepwise via 29.0 degrees C. All kinetic parameters of water pool changed (P less than 0.01) on direct exposure to heat, whereas rats exposed in a stepwise manner increased only pool turnover. In addition, exposure to experimental temperatures resulted in reduced (P less than 0.05) relative food intake and increased (P less than 0.05) water intake. Compared with the control condition of 24.5 degrees C, EWL was significantly (P less than 0.05) elevated when the animals were exposed either directly or in a stepwise fashion to 32.5 degrees C. These data suggest that the response to elevated temperatures is influenced by the temperature to which the rat is acclimated.