To determine the number and location of antibody binding epitopes on type II collagen, outbred and inbred rats were immunized with chick, bovine, human, and rat type II collagen (CII, BII, HII, and RII); all sera were assayed for reaction with a panel of CB peptides purified and renatured from the immunizing collagen and from RII. Antibody reaction patterns (profiles) varied among individual outbred rats but were essentially constant over time and changed little after boosting. The strongest antibody reactions were to CB11, CB9-7, and CB12 followed by CB8, CB10, and CB6. Antibody profiles varied depending on the species of collagen used for immunization and the strain of rat immunized. Except for CB10, where antibodies were largely specific for heterologous collagens, antibodies reactive with all other CB peptides cross-reacted strongly with renatured rat CB peptides. Sera from inbred BB rats immunized with BII, CII, or HII reacted best with CB11, unlike antisera to RII that reacted strongly with CB9-7. Inbred LEW, COP, WKY, F344, and BUF rats immunized with BII reacted strongest with CB9-7 and variably with CB11 and CB12. BBxLEW F1 hybrid rats reacted almost equally with CB11 and CB9-7 producing an antibody profile intermediate to those elicited in the parent strains. Finally, antibodies reactive with rat CB11, CB9-7, and CB12 could be eluted from normal rat cartilage incubated in anti-BII serum; antibody eluate profiles generally paralleled the profile produced by the sera applied to cartilage. Taken together, these findings indicate that multiple antibody-reactive epitopes on type II collagen may be instrumental in the initiation of collagen-induced arthritis in rats, particularly shared or cross-reactive epitopes located within CB11, CB9-7, CB12, and CB8.