Although excitotoxins derived from acidic amino acids are known to damage neurons in the inner nuclear and ganglion cell layers of the retina, little is known about their effects on photoreceptors. This study examines the acute and long-term effects of excitotoxins on photoreceptors of the chick retina. The zinc-iodide-osmium (ZIO) technique, which darkly labels a substantial subpopulation of synaptic vesicles in normal photoreceptor terminals, was used to supplement routine electron microscopy. Two-day-old chicks received a single intraocular injection of either 10, 50, or 200 nmoles kainic acid (KA), 200 nmoles N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA), or 200 nmoles quisqualic acid (QUIS), and were allowed to survive for either 6 h, 7 d, or 21 d. At 6 h, following exposure to 10, 50, and 200 nmoles KA, there was swelling and disruption of photoreceptor lamellae of the outer segments. At 7- and 21-d survival, 50 and 200 nmoles KA resulted in rounded, condensed synaptic terminals, which contained a high density of synaptic vesicles. However, there was complete loss of ZIO-positive vesicles within these photoreceptors. Outer segments were still disrupted, although small patches of lamellae were evident, suggestive of regeneration. Following exposure to QUIS, there was extensive swelling of outer segment lamellae at 6 h survival. Synaptic ribbons in terminals were also swollen. At longer survival periods, QUIS exposure resulted in a reduction of ZIO-positive vesicles, as well as swollen lamellae in outer segments. NMDA exposure, at either short or long-term survival, did not alter photoreceptor morphology, including the pattern of ZIO stain. The prolonged effects of KA, and to a lesser extent QUIS, on photoreceptors suggests that these drugs have a long-term effect on photoreceptor function. The ZIO technique provides a novel and potentially useful approach for identification of damaged photoreceptors.