We have used in situ hybridization to survey the expression pattern of three fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR) mRNAs (PFR-1, PFR-3 and PFR-4, which we previously identified as the amphibian Pleurodeles waltl homologs of human FGFR-1, FGFR-3 and FGFR-4, respectively) during morphogenesis. Previous work suggests that these FGFR mRNAs exhibit a distinct pattern of expression at early developmental stages. In the present study we have tested the functional activity of these receptors and shown that both FGF-1 (acidic FGF) and FGF-2 (basic FGF), but not FGF-7 (keratinocyte growth factor), can lead to their activation, suggesting that the three cDNAs encode functional receptors. Results from in situ hybridization indicate that various FGFRs are involved in various developmental events. Their involvement in these processes is both overlapping and distinct. During the differentiation of the central nervous system (CNS), PFR-1 and PFR-4 mRNAs show high levels of redundant expression, while the sites of expression of PFR-3 mRNA correlate with regions, such as the diencephalon and the rhombencephalon, undergoing important anatomic changes. The three FGFR mRNAs are distinctly expressed in the cranial ganglia, the pigmented epithelia of retina and the otic vesicles. Most significantly, we found that they are strongly expressed at cranial and branchial mesenchymal condensation sites. PFR-3 mRNA is expressed earlier in this process than PFR-1 and PFR-4 mRNAs. Furthermore PFR-3 mRNA is detected in the mesenchyme of the limb bud, while PFR-1 and PFR-4 mRNAs are found in the primordia of the skeletal elements. In addition, PFR-1 mRNA is expressed in axial mesenchyme and PFR-4 mRNA is detected in the melanophores, xanthophores and in the pronephros. These results suggest that various FGFRs may be involved in distinct developmental events including cell proliferation and differentiation. We also discuss the functional redundancy of the FGFR system during amphibian morphogenesis.