The surface force apparatus was used to determine the fundamental forces governing the adhesion between mixed bilayer membranes comprising lactosyl ceramide (LacCer) and di-tridecanoyl-phosphatidyl choline. Forces between membranes were quantified as a function of the glycolipid surface densities, which ranged from 0 to 30 mol %. Control measurements of the forces between pure phosphatidylcholine membranes and mixed bilayers of lactosyl ceramide with phosphocholine showed that the steric thickness of the carbohydrate headgroups increased from 19 to 25 A when the glycolipid density increased from 10 to 20 mol %. The layer compressibility also decreased with increasing carbohydrate coverage, but the corresponding adhesion between lactosyl ceramide-containing membranes increased with increasing amounts of glycosphingolipid in them. The nonspecific van der Waals forces accounted for the attraction measured in the control experiments and that between identical 10 mol % LacCer bilayers. However, the increase in the adhesion with increasing glycolipid density was 2-4 times greater than predicted by Lifschitz theory. Additionally, the forces measured during separation of membranes containing 20 and 30 mol % glycosphingolipid indicated that the headgroups bind and rearrange during bilayer detachment. The interactions between the carbohydrates are weak and apparently dynamic, and they generate an additional density-dependent intermembrane attraction that is on the order of the van der Waals force.