Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) have been developed as a means of targeting estrogen's protective effect on the skeleton in the treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis. Although it is well established that SERMs such as tamoxifen inhibit bone resorption in a similar manner to estrogen, whether this agent shares estrogen's stimulatory action on bone formation is currently unclear. To address this question, we compared the effect of treatment for 28 d with 17beta-estradiol (E2; 0.1, 1.0 mg/kg x d) and tamoxifen (0.1, 1.0, or 10 mg/kg x d) on cancellous bone formation at the proximal tibial metaphysis of intact female mice. E2 stimulated the formation of new cancellous bone throughout the metaphysis. A similar response was observed after administration of tamoxifen, the magnitude of which was approximately 50% of that seen after E2. As expected, E2 was found to suppress longitudinal bone growth, but in contrast, this parameter was stimulated by tamoxifen. We conclude that tamoxifen acts as an agonist with respect to estrogen's stimulatory action on bone formation but as an antagonist in terms of estrogen's inhibition of longitudinal growth, suggesting that the protective effect of SERMs on the skeleton is partly mediated by stimulation of osteoblast activity.