The finding that retinoic acid (RA) has major effects on pattern formation in developing chick limbs has led to the conclusion that RA plays a central role in the normal development of the limb. In addition, it has been demonstrated that treatment with exogenous RA leads to changes in expression of homeobox-containing Hox complex genes within the developing limb. This has been used to argue that, since RA activates 5' Hox D complex genes in the same temporal and spatial sequence as in normal development, Hox genes might be regulated by RA during normal limb development. In this study, we further examine the temporal and spatial changes in expression of Hox D13 and RAR-beta 2 transcripts in wing buds in response to local application of RA in vivo. We confirm reports that RAR-beta 2 expression is induced early and locally by RA. However, we find that the effect of RA on Hox D13 gene expression at the distal end of wing buds at stage 25/26 is downregulation of transcript expression. Furthermore, we find that activation of ectopic Hox D13 expression in response to implantation of RA beads along the anterior margin at stage 20/21 is indirect. Finally, the effects of RA exposure on Hox D13 expression appear to directly correlate with effects on the pattern of distal skeletal elements.