Properties of the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) with respect to Ca(2+) loading and release were measured in mechanically skinned fiber preparations from isolated extensor digitorum longus (EDL) muscles of the rat that were either kept at room temperature (23 degrees C) or exposed to temperatures in the upper physiological range for mammalian skeletal muscle (30 min at 40 or 43 degrees C). The ability of the SR to accumulate Ca(2+) was significantly reduced by a factor of 1.9-2.1 after the temperature treatments due to a marked increase in SR Ca(2+) leak, which persisted for at least 3 h after treatment. Results with blockers of Ca(2+) release channels (ruthenium red) and SR Ca(2+) pumps [2,5-di(tert-butyl)-1,4-hydroquinone] indicate that the increased Ca(2+) leak was not through the SR Ca(2+) release channel or the SR Ca(2+) pump, although it is possible that the leak pathway was via oligomerized Ca(2+) pump molecules. No significant change in the maximum SR Ca(2+)-ATPase activity was observed after the temperature treatment, although there was a tendency for a decrease in the SR Ca(2+)-ATPase. The observed changes in SR properties were fully prevented by the superoxide (O(2)(*-)) scavenger Tiron (20 mM), indicating that the production of O(2)(*-) at elevated temperatures is responsible for the increase in SR Ca(2+) leak. Results show that physiologically relevant elevated temperatures 1) induce lasting changes in SR properties with respect to Ca(2+) handling that contribute to a marked increase in the SR Ca(2+) leak and, consequently, to the reduction in the average coupling ratio between Ca(2+) transport and SR Ca(2+)-ATPase and muscle performance, and 2) that these changes are mediated by temperature-induced O(2)(*-) production.