The effects of absent or low Ca2+ (0.5 mM), verapamil, nifedipine, Na nitroprusside, theophylline, La2+, and ethanol on basal active tension (tone), "off" contractions, and carbachol contractions were studied in opossum lower esophageal sphincter strips. Incubation in Ca2+-free Ringer (0.1 mM EGTA) abolished tone and contractions. Low Ca2+, verapamil, nifedipine, and theophylline depressed tone more rapidly than "off" contractions. Only verapamil and nifedipine depressed carbachol contractions. Na nitroprusside rapidly depressed tone but left contractions unchanged. La3+ at 1 X 10(-3) M behaved like Ca2+-free incubation but produced sustained contractions with muscle stimulation. Ethanol depressed "off" contractions more than tone and did not affect carbachol-induced contractions. These results suggest that tone probably results from inward leak of Ca2+, whereas "off" contractions depend on release of Ca2+ sequestered in the cell by a mechanism not immediately dependent on increased Ca2+ influx. Carbachol may increase Ca2+ influx as well as utilize sequestered Ca2+. Nifedipine and verapamil may act to block both resting and stimulated Ca2+ influx. Na nitroprusside may act by increasing Ca2+ efflux. Ethanol may act by decreasing the availability of sequestered Ca2+ or by inhibiting the function of a mediator responsible for "off" contractions.