In Xenopus laevis, the laryngeal motor nucleus (n. of cranial nerves IX-X) is part of a sexually differentiated, androgen sensitive neuromuscular system devoted to vocalization. Adult males have more n. IX-X neurons than females; however, during development of n. IX-X, the rate of neurogenesis does not appear to differ between the sexes. In this study, we explored the role of naturally occurring cell death in the development of this nucleus and asked whether cell death might be involved in establishing the sex difference in neuron number. Counts of n. IX-X neurons reveal that at tadpole stage 56, males and females have similar numbers of n. IX-X neurons, but by stage 64 male neuron numbers are greater. This sex difference arises owing to a greater net loss of neurons in females-males lose approximately 25% of their n. IX-X neurons between stages 56 and 64, while females lose approximately 47%. Sexual differentiation of n. IX-X neuron number coincides with a period of developmental cell death, as evidenced by terminal transferase-mediated dUTP nick-end labeling and the presence of pyknotic nuclei in n. IX-X. A role for gonadal hormones in controlling cell number was examined by treating tadpoles with exogenous androgen and determining the number of n. IX-X neurons at stage 64. Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) treatment from the beginning of the cell death period (stage 54) until stage 64 had no effect on the number of n. IX-X neurons in males but did significantly increase n. IX-X neuron number in females. This increase was sufficient to abolish the sex difference normally observed at stage 64. Although DHT induced increases in female neuron number, it did not induce increases in cell proliferation or addition of newly born neurons to n. IX-X. DHT may therefore have increased neuron number by protecting cells from death. We conclude that androgens can influence the survival of n. IX-X neurons during a period of naturally occurring cell death, and that this action of androgen is critical to the development of sex differences in n. IX-X neuron number.