Preovulatory surges of both prolactin (PRL) and progesterone have been suggested to be necessary for the induction of apoptosis in the regressing corpus luteum of the cyclic rat. The aim of these experiments was to study whether the administration of PRL and/or progesterone on the morning of pro-oestrus reproduces the regressive changes that happen in the cyclic corpus luteum (CL) during the transition from pro-oestrus to oestrus, and to analyse the temporal relationships between two characteristic features of structural luteolysis (luteal cell apoptosis and accumulation of macrophages). Cyclic rats (treated at 0900 h with an LHRH antagonist to block LH secretion) were injected at 1000 h with PRL and progesterone and killed at 0, 30, 60, 90 and 180 min after treatment. The number of apoptotic cells increased progressively from 60 min after treatment onward in hormone-treated rats, whereas the number of macrophages did not change throughout the period of time considered. Rats injected with PRL plus progesterone showed significantly greater numbers of apoptotic cells than those injected with PRL alone. The luteolytic effects of progesterone were in keeping with the presence of luteal endothelial cells showing progesterone receptor (PR) immunoreactivity in pro-oestrus. Treatment of rats during dioestrus and pro-oestrus with the specific antioestrogens LY117018 and RU58668 decreased the luteolytic effects of PRL and progesterone and the number of luteal endothelial cells immunostained for PR. These results strongly suggest that the preovulatory PRL surge and the preovulatory increase in progesterone together trigger structural regression of the corpus luteum. This seems to be dependent on oestrogen-driven cyclic changes in PRs in luteal endothelial cells.