The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) has been studied in a multitude of mammals by now, but much less is known about its organisation and variation in other vertebrate species. The mammalian MHC is organised as a single gene cluster, but recent studies on birds suggest that this paradigm of MHC organisation has to be supplemented. The domestic chicken thus possesses two separate gene clusters which both contain MHC class I and class II B genes, and we have shown that the ring-necked pheasant Phasianus colchicus also has two unlinked clusters of class II B genes. We are studying the effect of the MHC on mate choice, survival and reproductive success in natural populations of birds and reptiles. For this reason, we are developing DNA techniques to determine the animals' MHC genotype. The amplification of the hypervariable exon 3 of the class I gene from songbirds and reptiles has provided us with species specific probes that can be used in Southern blot analysis. The first results indicate very extensive variation in all studied species, that is starlings Sturnus vulgaris, great reed warblers Acrocephalus arundinaceus and water pythons Liasis fuscus. The restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis also suggests that the number of MHC genes is significantly larger in these species than in pheasants and domestic chickens.