We studied Sacramento River white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, in the laboratory to develop a conceptual model of ontogenetic behavior and provide insight into probable behavior of wild sturgeon. After hatching, free embryos initiated a low intensity, brief downstream dispersal during which fish swam near the bottom and were photonegative. The weak, short dispersal style and behavior of white sturgeon free embryos contrasts greatly with the intense, long dispersal style and behavior (photopositive and swimming far above the bottom) of dispersing free embryos of other sturgeon species. If spawned eggs are concentrated within a few kilometers downstream of a spawning site, the adaptive significance of the free embryo dispersal is likely to move fish away from the egg deposition site to avoid predation and reduce fish density prior to feeding. Larvae foraged on the open bottom, swam <1 m above the bottom, aggregated, but did not disperse. Early juveniles initiated a strong dispersal with fish strongly vigorously swimming downstream. Duration of the juvenile dispersal is unknown, but the strong swimming likely disperses fish many kilometers. Recruitment failure in white sturgeon populations may be a mis-match between the innate fish dispersal and post-dispersal rearing habitat, which is now highly altered by damming and reservoirs. Sacramento River white sturgeon has a two-step downstream dispersal by the free embryo and juvenile life intervals. Diel activity of all life intervals peaked at night, whether fish were dispersing or foraging. Nocturnal behavior is likely a response to predation, which occurs during both activities. An intense black-tail body color was present on foraging larvae, but was weak or absent on the two life intervals that disperse. Black-tail color may be an adaptation for avoiding predation, signaling among aggregated larvae, or both, but not for dispersal. ?? Springer 2005.