For functional studies of the integrin alpha 4 cytoplasmic domain, we have expressed the following in K562 and Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells: 1) wild-type alpha 4 (called X4C4), 2) two chimeric forms of alpha 4 (called X4C2 and X4C5) that contain the cytoplasmic domains of alpha 2 and alpha 5, respectively, and 3) alpha 4 with no cytoplasmic domain (X4C0). Cytoplasmic domain exchange had no effect on VLA-4-dependent static cell adhesion or tethering to VCAM-1 in conditions of shear flow. However, the presence of the alpha 2 or alpha 5 tails markedly enhanced VLA-4-dependent K562 cells spreading (X4C2 > X4C5 > X4C4 > X4C0), increased localization of VLA-4 into focal adhesion-like complexes in CHO cells (X4C2 > X4C5 > X4C4), and strengthened CHO and K562 cell resistance to detachment from VCAM-1 in conditions of shear flow (X4C2 > X4C5 > X4C4 > X4C0). Conversely, the alpha 4 tail supported greater VLA-4-dependent haptotactic and chemotactic cell migration. In the absence of any alpha tail (i.e., X4C0), robust focal adhesions were observed, even though cell spreading and adhesion strengthening were minimal. Thus, such focal adhesions may have relatively little functional importance, and should not be compared with focal adhesions formed when alpha tails are present. Together, these results indicate that all three alpha-chain tails exert defined positive effects (compared with no tail at all), but suggest that the alpha 4 cytoplasmic domain may be specialized to engage in weaker cytoskeletal interactions, leading to diminished focal adhesion formation, cell spreading, and adhesion strengthening, while augmenting cell migration and facilitating rolling under shear flow. These properties of the alpha 4 tail are consistent with the role of alpha 4 integrins on highly motile lymphocytes, monocytes, and eosinophils.