© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd This study reports the ontogenetic development of the digestive system of larval Pacific red snapper (Lutjanus peru), an important candidate species for aquaculture on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Histological sections of larvae were cut and dyed using the haematoxylin–eosin technique. The development of the digestive tract of Pacific red snapper larvae follows a general pattern of differentiation that can be divided into three stages. Stage I lasted from 1–3 days post hatching (DPH) and included the endogenous nutrition period; it was characterized by the initial differentiation of the digestive tract in preparation for the onset of exogenous feeding (3 DPH). At this time, the digestive tract was differentiated into buccopharynx, oesophagus, stomach anlage, anterior intestine, posterior intestine and a short rectum. The liver, pancreas and kidney were also present. The mouth and anus were open. Stage II occurred after first feeding, lasted for 16 days (4–23 DPH) and included both preflexion and flexion larvae. The main changes that occurred during this stage reflected the adaptation to exogenous feeding and the concomitant growth. Stage III (24–30 DPH) included post-flexion larvae and started with the appearance of the gastric glands and pyloric caeca. The presence of the gastric glands suggests that early weaning during culture trials of the Pacific red snapper larvae may be possible at this early age.