Phenyl phosphonothioic acid-O-ethyl-O-[4-nitrophenyl] ester (EPN) is one of the 10 most frequently used organophosphorus insecticides and causes delayed neurotoxicity in adult chickens and mallards. Small amounts of organophosphorus insecticides placed on birds' eggs are embryotoxic and teratogenic. For this reason, the effects of topical egg application on EPN were examined on mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) embryo development. Mallard eggs were treated topically at 72 hr of incubation with 25 microliter of a nontoxic oil vehicle or with EPN in the vehicle at concentrations of approximately 12, 36, or 108 micrograms/g egg, equivalent to one, three, and nine times the agricultural level of application used to spray crops. Treatment with EPN resulted in 22 to 44% mortality over this dose range by 18 days of development compared with 4 and 5% for untreated and vehicle-treated controls. EPN impaired embryonic growth and was highly teratogenic: 37-42% of the surviving embryos at 18 days were abnormal with cervical and axial scoliosis as well as severe edema. Brain weights were significantly lower in EPN-treated groups at different stages of development including hatchlings. Brain neurotoxic esterase (NTE) activity was inhibited by as much as 91% at 11 days, 81% at 18 days, and 79% in hatchlings. Examination of brain NTE activity during the course of normal development revealed an increase of nearly sixfold from Day 11 through hatching. The most rapid increase occurred between Day 20 and hatching. Brain acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity was inhibited by as much as 41% at 11 days, 47% at 18 days, and 20% in hatchlings. Plasma cholinesterase and alkaline phosphatase activities were inhibited and plasma aspartate aminotransferase activity was increased at one or more stages of development. Hatchlings from EPN-treated eggs were weaker and slower to right themselves. Histopathological examination did not reveal demyelination and axonopathy of the spinal cord that was characteristic of delayed neurotoxicity in adult birds.