Our aim was to examine changes in heart rate (fh) during the embryonic and posthatching periods of the smallest precocial avian species, Coturnix chinensis. In experiment I, repeated measurements of mean fh were made for individual quail by ballistocardiogram (BCG) during incubation, and by both piezo-electric film and electrocardiogram (ECG) during the posthatching period (resting and thermoneutral conditions). Mean fh of all embryos increased during the second half of incubation and the first week posthatching, but a few embryos experienced a very brief period of decreased fh prior to internal pipping. After the first week, fh of posthatching quail was maintained at high levels (550-650 beats min-1), then decreased with age and increase in body mass. The maximal fh of quail chicks represents a greater posthatching increase in fh than is found in larger precocial chickens, this difference being attributable to the higher demands of thermoregulation at small body masses in the quail. In experiment II, the mean fh of quail embryos (day 2-16) was recorded by ECG, and embryonic stage, yolk-free embryo mass (wet and dry) and water content were measured. Mean fh was linearly related to embryo mass throughout incubation, except on the day prior to internal pipping, when the fh of a few embryos declined below this linear relationship. Measurements of instantaneous fh of late incubation embryos, young and adult quail all showed spontaneous fluctuations in fh. Two main frequency components of fh fluctuations were identified for the first time in an avian species. Low-frequency (mean 0.09 Hz, 12.6 s) and high-frequency (1.4 Hz, 0.9 s) oscillations in both young chicks and adult quail were detected and are considered to reflect baroreflex mediation of fh and respiratory sinus arrhythmia, respectively.