Metamorphosis in anuran amphibia requires thyroid hormone (TH) and can be induced prematurely by the administration of TH. There is also evidence that the developmental effects of TH in these forms are modified by other hormones. For example, PRL has been shown to retard and corticosterone (B) to accelerate some, but not all, components of TH-induced metamorphosis. Red blood cells (RBCs) of Rana catesbeiana tadpoles exhibit a 4- to 5-fold increase in thyroid hormone receptor (TR) number (sites per nucleus) in vivo during either spontaneous or TH-induced metamorphosis. In the present study this TH-induced effect on RBC TR number was examined in an in vitro culture system. RBC TR number was increased by T3 in vitro; the maximum effect (2-fold increase) was obtained after exposure to 0.3 nM T3 for 60 h. This T3-induced increase in TR number was completely abolished in the presence of either 34 nM B or 10 nM dexamethasone, whereas basal TR number was unaffected. The effect appears to be a specific effect of glucocorticoid (GC), because it was not mimicked by the sex steroid, testosterone, and it was not obtained when RU-486, a glucocorticoid antagonist, was included with B in the medium. Other experiments demonstrated that the T3-induced increase in RBC TR was associated with an increase in the TR alpha messenger RNA level. This increase in TR alpha messenger RNA was reduced, but not eliminated, in the presence of concentrations of GC that abolished the TH-induced increase in TR, suggesting that the effects of GC occur in part at a pretranslational level. Using a GC binding assay, tadpole RBCs were found to contain approximately 10(4) GC receptors/cell. These findings indicate that B may be a physiological modulator of TH action in tadpole RBCs. This inhibitory effect of GC contrasts with previous reports that GC accelerates some of the morphological effects of TH in developing tadpoles, indicating that the nature of this modulating effect on TH action is tissue specific.