Photoperiodism is a process whereby organisms are able to use both absolute measures of day length and the direction of day length change as a basis for regulating seasonal changes in physiology and behavior. The use of day length cues allows organisms to essentially track time-of-year and to "anticipate" relatively predictable annual variations in important environmental parameters. Thus, adaptive types of seasonal biological changes can be molded through evolution to fit annual environmental cycles. Studies of the formal properties of photoperiodic mechanisms have revealed that most organisms use circadian oscillators to measure day length. Two types of paradigms, designated as the external and internal coincidence models, have been proposed to account for photoperiodic time measurement by a circadian mechanism. Both models postulate that the timing of light exposure, rather than the total amount of light, is critical to the organism's perception of day length. In mammals, a circadian oscillator(s) in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus receives photic stimuli via the retinohypothalamic tract. The circadian system regulates the rhythmic secretion of the pineal hormone, melatonin. Melatonin is secreted at night, and the duration of secretion varies in inverse relation to day length; thus, photoperiod information is "encoded" in the melatonin signal. The melatonin signal is presumably "decoded" in melatonin target tissues that are involved in the regulation of a variety of seasonal responses. Variations in photoperiodic response are seen not only between species but also between breeding populations within a species and between individuals within single breeding populations. Sometimes these variations appear to be the result of differences in responsiveness to melatonin; in other cases, variations in photoperiod responsiveness may depend on differences in patterns of melatonin secretion related to circadian variation. Sites of action for melatonin in mammals are not yet well characterized, but potential targets of particular interest include the pars tuberalis of the pituitary gland and the suprachiasmatic nuclei. Both these sites exhibit uptake of radiolabeled melatonin in various species, and there is some evidence for direct action of melatonin at these sites. However, it appears that there are species differences with respect to the importance and specific functions of various melatonin target sites.