To make specific synaptic connections, projection neurons extend neurites to regions containing appropriate targets, then form synapses with the correct type and number of target cells. To investigate the mechanisms controlling this process, we have studied the formation of motoneuronal terminal fields in live zebrafish embryos. The primary motoneurons of the zebrafish are identifiable as individuals and innervate neighboring but mutually exclusive territories. To study the first week of their development, which includes embryonic and early larval stages, we labeled identified motoneurons with fluorescent dyes and made sequential observations of the axonal branches of individual neurons. We assessed the roles of competitive interactions and synapse elimination in the formation of specific synapses by identified neurons that innervate neighboring territories. Our results demonstrate that primary motoneurons establish their cell-specific terminal fields primarily by directed outgrowth of branches and formation of neuromuscular junctions almost exclusively on appropriate muscle fibers, rather than by overproduction and selective elimination of inappropriate branches. Retraction of the few branches that are inappropriately placed, though correlated in time with the ingrowth of branches from appropriate motoneurons, occurs independently of the influences of these other cells and when neuromuscular transmission is blocked. We suggest that, similar to the way in which they pioneer peripheral nerve pathways, primary motoneurons establish their cell- specific terminal fields using mechanisms that operate independently of activity and competition. The target or substrate interactions that are likely to instruct directed growth-cone navigation may be similar to the interactions that determine the locations of territorial borders and that instruct the retraction of misplaced branches.