Most studies on the nuclear retinoid-X receptor (RXR) have focused on its role as a heterodimeric partner but less about its own activation pattern during development and the distribution of potential endogenous ligands. The aim of this study is to visualize the distribution of activated RXRalpha in live transgenic Xenopus laevis embryos across a wide range of developmental stages. We adopted a nuclear receptor-Gal4 fusion/upstream activation sequence-based reporter system for our assay. Strong activation of the RXRalpha ligand-binding domain was observed in a segment of the spinal cord just posterior to the hindbrain. This activation is first detected in neurula stage embryos and persists up to swimming tadpole stages, after which activation strongly declines. Addition of exogenous ligands, such as 9-cis retinoic acid or all-trans retinoic acid, expands the activation of RXR throughout the spinal cord but not in the brain, whereas the RXR-specific ligand LG268 expanded the Gal4-RXR activation into the brain and olfactory epithelia. Treatment with the RAR-specific ligand 4-(E-2-(5,6,7,8-tetrahydro-5,5,8,8-tetramethyl-2-naphthalenyl)-1-propenyl)benzoic acid or thyroid hormone had no effect on Gal4-RXR activation, whereas these compounds significantly increased their corresponding Gal4/receptor fusion proteins under similar conditions. Embryos expressing a Gal4-RXR fusion protein with a deletion in the ligand-dependent activation domain (AF2) show no reporter gene activation. The results shown in this paper reveal a specific activation pattern for Gal4-RXRalpha specifically in the developing spinal cord and suggest the existence of RXR ligand "hot-spots" in this region.