As part of an ongoing comparative study of pigment patterns and their formation in embryos and larvae of ambystomatid salamanders, Ambystoma maculatum from two differnt populations, one in the northern (New York) and one in the central (Tennessee) United States, were investigated. Scanning electron microscopy was used to study early neural crest development. Light microscopy in combination with markers for the two pigment cell types (xanthophores and melanophores) made it possible to follow pigment cell migration before the pigment cells were fully differentiated. A bilateral pigment pattern consisting of two horizontal melanophore stripes surrounding an interstripe area populated by xanthophores formed in the larvae. In both populations, some variation was present in the form of a continuum ranging from clear horizontal stripes to extreme cases with a random pattern. Unlike the other ambystomatids that have been investigated, the neural crest cells in A. maculatum do not form aggregates and no vertical bars are formed. Instead, both the pattern and its formation are very similar to what has been reported for salamandrids. If pattern formation mechanisms can act as developmental constraints we would expect the A. maculatum pattern to be the primitive condition in the Ambystomatidae, using the Salamandridae as the outgroup. There is no strong support for this when aggregate formation is used as a character and mapped onto phylogenies for the group. The aggregate formation mechanism, and the pigment pattern that it leads to, have most likely been secondarily lost in A. maculatum. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.