In vivo imaging of optic tectal neurons in the intact Xenopus tadpole permits direct observation of the structural dynamics that occur during dendritic arbor formation. Based on images of single DiI-labeled neurons collected at daily intervals over a period of 6 d, we divided tectal cell development into three phases according to the total length of the dendritic arbor. During phase 1, the cell differentiates from a neuroepithelial cell type and extends an axon out of the tectum. The total dendritic branch length (TDBL) is <100 micrometers. During phase 2, when TDBL is 100-400 micrometers, the dendritic arbor grows rapidly. During phase 3, when TDBL is >400 micrometers, the dendritic arbor grows slowly and appears stable. Neurons at different positions along the rostrocaudal developmental axis of the tectum were imaged at 2 hr intervals over 6 hr and at 24 hr intervals over several days. Images collected at 2 hr intervals were analyzed to determine rates of branch additions and retractions. Morphologically complex, phase 3 neurons show half the rate of branch additions and retractions as phase 2 neurons. Therefore, rapidly growing neurons have dynamic dendritic arbors, and slower-growing neurons are structurally stable. The change in growth rate and dendritic arbor dynamics from phase 2 to phase 3 correlates with the developmental increase in synaptic strength in neurons located along the rostrocaudal tectal axis. The data are consistent with the idea that strong synaptic inputs stabilize dendritic arbor structures and that weaker synaptic inputs are permissive for a greater degree of dynamic rearrangements and a faster growth rate in the dendritic arbor.