An in vitro preparation of rabbit cornea was used to compare anatomical specialization and electrophysiological responses of A delta and C fiber sensory afferents which terminate as free nerve endings. Living nerve endings were visualized using epifluorescence microscopy and the vital dye 4-di2-ASP, and response properties were determined using microstimulation and recording of fiber discharge activity. Fiber type was determined based on conduction velocity measurement and preferred stimulus energy (modality) of each fiber. Four modality-specific fiber populations were identified: (1) slowly adapting C fiber cold receptors (conduction velocity of 0.25–1.6 m/sec), (2) C fiber chemosensitive units with mixed phasic and tonic activity (1.1–1.8 m/sec), (3) rapidly adapting mechanosensitive A delta fibers (1.5–2.8 m/sec), and (4) high- threshold mechano/heat (> 350 dyne or > 40 degrees C) phasic A delta afferents (3.5–4.4 m/sec). In addition to these physiological differences, anatomical specialization was also noted. A delta fiber nerve endings were distinguished from those of C fibers by thin, elongated sensory endings that ran parallel to the corneal surface; C fiber endings formed short, branching clusters that ran mostly perpendicular to the surface. The elongated structure of A delta nerve endings was associated with directional selectivity for mechanical stimuli. These results substantiate previous suggestions that free nerve endings can exhibit both structural and functional specialization.