Avian homologues of mammalian gamma delta and alpha beta TCR, termed TCR1 and TCR2, have been identified in the chicken with specific mAb. A third TCR, dubbed TCR3, has been identified on a subpopulation of T cells that lack the TCR1 or TCR2 epitopes. We have now produced a mAb that identifies this TCR3 molecule. The anti-TCR3 antibody immunoprecipitates a CD3-associated heterodimer with a relative Mr of 88,000, composed of 48,000 and 40,000 disulfide-linked chains. The Mr 40,000 chains of TCR3 and TCR2 exhibited the same isoelectric points of 5.6 to 6.5 and had core proteins of 34,000. Although the Mr 48,000 chain of TCR3 and the Mr 50,000 chain of TCR2 had the same basic isoelectric point of 6.2 to 7.6, their core proteins were different in size, 31,000 vs 29,000. Immunofluorescence analysis reveals that the TCR3 was present on all of the CD3+ T cells not identified by antibodies specific for TCR1 or TCR2. Thymocytes that expressed the surface CD3/TCR3 complex at relatively low levels were predominantly CD4+ and CD8+, whereas those with higher levels of surface CD3/TCR3 were predominantly CD4+ and CD8+ singles. Mature TCR3+ cells in the periphery were also either CD4+ (80%) or CD8+ (20%). The TCR1+, TCR2+, and TCR3+ subsets of T cells were generated sequentially in the thymus and seeded to the periphery in the same order. Intrathymic development of the TCR3+ cells was selectively inhibited by embryonic treatment with the anti-TCR3 mAb. The pattern of histologic localization of TCR3+ cells in the periphery was similar to the TCR2 subset of cells except that the TCR3+ cells were rarely seen in the intestine. Cross-reactivity patterns of the anti-chicken TCR antibodies suggested that other gallinaceous species share the three types of TCR. We conclude that TCR2 and TCR3 in gallinaceous birds may represent alpha beta subfamilies of TCR that are sequentially expressed on developmentally discrete sublines of T cells.