Early neural activity, both prenatal spontaneous bursts and early visual experience, is believed to be important for dendritic proliferation and for the maturation of neural circuitry in the developing retina. In this study, we have investigated the possible role of early neural activity in shaping developing turtle retinal ganglion cell (RGC) dendritic arbors. RGCs were back-labelled from the optic nerve with horseradish peroxidase (HRP). Changes in dendritic growth patterns were examined across development and following chronic blockade or modification of spontaneous activity and/or visual experience. Dendrites reach peak proliferation at embryonic stage 25 (S25, one week before hatching), followed by pruning in large field RGCs around the time of hatching. When spontaneous activity is chronically blocked in vivo from early embryonic stages (S22) with curare, a cholinergic nicotinic antagonist, RGC dendritic growth is inhibited. On the other hand, enhancement of spontaneous activity by dark-rearing (Sernagor & Grzywacz (1996)Curr. Biol., 6, 1503–1508) promotes dendritic proliferation in large-field RGCs, an effect that is counteracted by exposure to curare from hatching. We also recorded spontaneous activity from individual RGCs labelled with lucifer yellow (LY). We found a tendency of RGCs with large dendritic fields to be spontaneously more active than small-field cells. From all these observations, we conclude that immature spontaneous activity promotes dendritic growth in developing RGCs.