The primary function of the corpus luteum is secretion of the hormone progesterone, which is required for maintenance of normal pregnancy in mammals. The corpus luteum develops from residual follicular granulosal and thecal cells after ovulation. Luteinizing hormone (LH) from the anterior pituitary is important for normal development and function of the corpus luteum in most mammals, although growth hormone, prolactin, and estradiol also play a role in several species. The mature corpus luteum is composed of at least two steroidogenic cell types based on morphological and biochemical criteria and on the follicular source of origin. Small luteal cells appear to be of thecal cell origin and respond to LH with increased secretion of progesterone. LH directly stimulates the secretion of progesterone from small luteal cells via activation of the protein kinase A second messenger pathway. Large luteal cells are of granulosal cell origin and contain receptors for PGF(2alpha) and appear to mediate the luteolytic actions of this hormone. If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum must regress to allow follicular growth and ovulation and the reproductive cycle begins again. Luteal regression is initiated by PGF(2alpha) of uterine origin in most subprimate species. The role played by PGF(2alpha) in primates remains controversial. In primates, if PGF(2alpha) plays a role in luteolysis, it appears to be of ovarian origin. The antisteroidogenic effects of PGF(2alpha) appear to be mediated by the protein kinase C second messenger pathway, whereas loss of luteal cells appears to follow an influx of calcium, activation of endonucleases, and an apoptotic form of cell death. If the female becomes pregnant, continued secretion of progesterone from the corpus luteum is required to provide an appropriate uterine environment for maintenance of pregnancy. The mechanisms whereby the pregnant uterus signals the corpus luteum that a conceptus is present varies from secretion of a chorionic gonadotropin (primates and equids), to secretion of an antiluteolytic factor (domestic ruminants), and to a neuroendocrine reflex arc that modifies the secretory patterns of hormones from the anterior pituitary (most rodents).