Unlike in birds and cold-blooded vertebrates' retinas, the photoreceptors of mammalian retinas were long supposed to be morphologically uniform and difficult to distinguish into subtypes. A number of new techniques have now begun to overcome the previous limitations. A hitherto unexpected variability of spectral and morphological subtypes and topographic patterns of distribution in the various retinas are being revealed. We begin to understand the design of the photoreceptor mosaics, the constraints of evolutionary history and the ecological specialization of these mosaics in all the mammalian subgroups. The review discusses current cytological identification of mammalian photoreceptor types and speculates on the likely "bottleneck-scenario" for the origin of the basic design of the mammalian retina. It then provides a brief synopsis of current data on the photoreceptors in the various mammalian orders and derives some trends for phenomena such as rod/cone dualism, spectral range, preservation or loss of double cones and oil droplets, photopigment co-expression and mono- and tri-chromacy. Finally, we attempt to demonstrate that, building on the limits of an ancient rod dominant (probably dichromatic) model, mammalian retinas have developed considerable radiation. Comparing the nonprimate models with the intensively studied primate model should provide us with a deeper understanding of the basic design of the mammalian retina.