The development and distribution of neuronal projections to the developing chick wing was studied using anterograde transport of horseradish peroxidase (HRP). Small injections of HRP were made into motor or sensory neuronal populations in order to visualize individual axons and their associated growth cones. Motor growth cones were observed in different regions of the embryo at different stages, in a proximal-to-distal pattern of distribution which paralleled the process of axon outgrowth and nerve formation. Different growth cone morphologies were associated with differing regions of the developing projection. In the spinal nerves, axons destined for the limb were unbranched and terminated in simply shaped growth cones. As axons approached the developing limb and entered the plexus region, their growth cones became more complex and larger primarily because of widening, and they sometimes branched, producing processes which could extend tens of microns from a tricorne branch point on the parent axon. Both motor and sensory fibers showed similar morphological changes in the plexus region. A distinctively shaped growth cone expanded on its leading edge was observed, sequentially apparent in the distal spinal nerves, in the plexus region, in the loosely organized axonal sheets projecting to the uncleaved dorsal or ventral muscle masses, and where muscle nerves diverged from nerve trunks and within muscle nerves. It is likely that some of these are transitional growth cones preparing to branch, because complex and branched growth cones were also observed in these regions. Branched axons oriented along the anteroposterior axis were similarly observed in the plexus region and distal to the plexus when axons first projected to the limb bud. At somewhat older stages when the basic peripheral nerve branching pattern had formed, motor growth cones were observed in common nerve trunks and in individual muscle nerves, but they were no longer found in the plexus region. Branched axons were likewise restricted to these peripheral Imations. Taken together, these observations suggest that one of the ways in which axons navigate is by exploration in the form of growth cone widening, and in some cases terminal bifurcation which may produce axon branches. Selection of the most appropriately directed growth cone process and/or precocious axonal branches may be one of the ways in which axons respond to specific growth cues which guide axons into the limb bud. Alternatively, this precocious branching may be an early neurotrophic response to developing muscle and play no significant role in axon navigation. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.