Murine adipocyte and rat heart fatty acid binding proteins (FABP) are closely related members of a family of cytosolic proteins which bind long-chain free fatty acids (ffa). The physical and chemical characteristics of the fatty acid binding sites of these proteins were studied using a series of fluorescent analogues of stearic acid (18:0) with an anthracene moiety covalently attached at seven different positions along the length of the hydrocarbon chain (AOffa). Previously, we used these probes to investigate the binding site of rat liver FABP (L-FABP) [Storch et al. (1989) J. Biol. Chem. 264, 8708-8713]. Here we extend those studies to adipocyte and heart FABP, two members of the FABP family which share a high degree of sequence homology with each other (62% identity) but which are less homologous with L-FABP (approximately 30%). The results show that the fluorescence emission spectra of AOffa bound to adipocyte FABP (A-FABP) are blue-shifted relative to heart FABP (H-FABP), indicating that AOffa bound to A-FABP are held in a more constrained configuration. For both proteins, constraint on the bound ffa probe is highest at the midportion of the acyl chain. Ffa are bound in a hydrophobic environment in both proteins. Excited-state lifetimes and fluorescence quantum yields suggest that the binding site of H-FABP is more hydrophobic than that of A-FABP. Nevertheless, acrylamide quenching experiments indicate that ffa bound to H-FABP are more accessible to the aqueous environment than are A-FABP-bound ffa. The apparent difference between results obtained from spectral properties and those from aqueous phase quenching may reflect differential polarity of adjacent residues in the A- and H-FABP binding sites. All spectral properties varied along the length of the hydrocarbon chain, particularly at the midportion, indicating a structured binding site in both proteins. Although adipocyte and heart FABP appear to bind ffa in a similar manner, the fine structure of their binding sites differs. The differences between A-FABP and H-FABP are less striking than are differences between either protein and the more distantly related L-FABP.