Basal and receptor-regulated changes in cytoplasmic calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) were monitored by fluorescence analysis in individual rat pituitary gonadotrophs loaded with the calcium-sensitive dye indo-1. Most gonadotrophs exhibited low amplitude spontaneous oscillations in basal [Ca2+]i that were interspersed by quiescent periods and abolished by removal of extracellular Ca2+ or addition of calcium channel blockers. Such random fluctuations in [Ca2+]i, which reflect the operation of a plasma membrane oscillator, were not coupled to basal gonadotropin secretion. The physiological agonist GnRH induced high amplitude [Ca2+]i oscillations; when a threshold [Ca2+]i level was reached, a cytoplasmic oscillator began to generate extremely regular Ca2+ transients. The time required to reach the threshold [Ca2+]i level was inversely correlated with agonist dose; the frequency, but not the amplitude, of agonist-induced Ca2+ spiking increased with agonist concentration. The duration of the latent period decreased and the frequency of Ca2+ spiking increased with the increase in ambient temperature. At high GnRH concentrations, the calcium transients merged into biphasic responses similar to those observed in cell suspensions at all GnRH concentrations. The presence of spontaneous fluctuations in basal [Ca2+]i did not significantly change the patterns of agonist-induced [Ca2+]i responses. Also, removal of extracellular Ca2+ did not interfere with the frequency or amplitude of Ca2+ spikes, but caused the loss of the plateau phase. Blockade of intracellular Ca(2+)-ATPase pumps by thapsigargin was usually accompanied by a subthreshold increase in [Ca2+]i. In such cells the agonist-induced oscillatory pattern was transformed into the biphasic response. In about 10% of the cells, however, high thapsigargin concentrations induced coarse [Ca2+]i oscillations; subsequent stimulation of such cells with GnRH was ineffective. The cytoplasmic oscillatory and biphasic responses may represent a mechanism for differential activation of Ca(2+)-dependent enzymes and their dependent cellular processes, including hormone secretion. The membrane oscillator is probably responsible for refilling of agonist-sensitive pools during and after agonist stimulation.