Small intestinal movements depend on the composition of the chyme with mixing predominating at high nutrient levels and propulsion being prevalent at low nutrient levels. The mechanisms coupling nutrients to motility are unknown. We used computer analysis of video recordings of isolated guinea-pig duodenum, jejunum and ileum to examine movements induced by a fatty acid, decanoic acid. Increasing intraluminal pressure past a threshold using control saline consistently evoked propulsive reflexes: lumen-occluding constrictions appeared at the oral end propagating at 20.4 ± 2.4 mm s−1 (mean ±s.d., jejunum) to the anal end before being repeated until the intraluminal pressure was returned to control. Subthreshold pressure increases sometimes evoked a transient series of constrictions appearing at the oral end and propagating anally at 18.4 ± 4.7 mm s−1 (jejunum). At basal pressures, decanoic acid dose-dependently induced motor activity consisting of 40–60 s episodes of constrictions separated by 40–200 s periods of quiescence and lasting up to 2 h. Five contraction patterns were identified within episodes including localized stationary constrictions; constrictions that propagated slowly (5–8 mm s−1) for short distances orally or anally; and constrictions that propagated orally or anally for the length of the preparation at 14–20 mm s−1. Decanoic acid induced motor activity was reversibly abolished by tetrodotoxin (3 μm), hyoscine (1 μm) and hexamethonium (100 μm), but was insensitive to blockade of P2 purinoceptors by PPADS (60 μm). Thus, decanoic acid induces motor activity equivalent to segmentation in guinea-pig small intestine in vitro and this depends on intrinsic neural pathways.