Sex steroid levels and steroid metabolism were investigated in relation to early gonadal development in a mixed sex population of the tilapia Oreochromis niloticus. Androstenedione (AD), testosterone (T), 11- ketotestosterone (KT), and estradiol (E2) were quantified by radioimmunoassay (RIA) of whole body extracts. Androstenedione metabolism was assessed by incubations in vitro with 3H-AD and metabolites were identified by thin-layer chromatography coupled with radioisotope image analysis. Histology revealed the presence of gonadal structures at 15 days postfertilization (dpf) and ovaries at 36 dpf, with other individuals exhibiting undifferentiated gonads containing germinal cells, presumably eventual testes. Androgen levels were initially high in eggs then decreased severalfold prior to the emergence of gonads. A transient increase in the levels of T and KT occurred at 22 dpf. Levels of E2 were either low or undetectable except for a transient increase (43 dpf) after ovaries were present. Levels of T approached bimodality from 57 to 64 dpf. Steroid metabolism generally increased throughout development. Metabolites were generally similar, consisting of T predominantly as well as 5β-reduced androgen derivatives and 11-oxygenated derivatives. Estriol was tentatively identified. Conjugated steroids were not formed. Two types of steroid metabolic profiles occurred at 50 dpf. These results demonstrate that changes in the steroidogenic profile occur during early transitions of gonadal development. Notably, (1) steroid biosynthetic capacity preceeds gonadal differentiation, (2) evidence for estrogens occurs after ovarian development has begun, and (3) bimodality of levels of T and differential steroid metabolism later in development may reflect the onset of sexual divergence.