Cutaneous malignant melanoma, the most lethal of the skin cancers, known for its intractability to current therapies, continues to increase in incidence, providing a significant public health challenge. There is a consensus that skin cancer is initiated by sunlight exposure. For non-melanoma skin cancer there is substantial evidence that chronic exposure to the ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) (280-320 nm) portion of the sunlight spectrum is responsible. Experimentally, UVB is mutagenic and chronic UVB exposure can cause non-melanoma skin cancer in laboratory animals. Non-melanoma tumors in animals and in humans show characteristic UVB signature lesions in the tumor suppressor p53 and/or in the patched (PTCH) gene. An action spectrum or wavelength dependence for squamous cell carcinoma in the mouse shows a major peak of efficacy in the UVB. For malignant melanoma, however, the situation is unclear and the critical direct target(s) of sunlight in initiating melanoma and even the wavelengths responsible are as yet unidentified. This lack of information is in major part a result of a paucity of animal models for melanoma which recapitulate the role of sunlight in initiating this disease. The epidemiology of melanoma differs significantly from non-melanoma skin cancer. Intense sporadic sunlight exposure in childhood, probably exacerbated by additional adult exposure, is associated with elevated melanoma risk. Melanoma is also a disease of gene-environment interactions with underlying genetic factors playing a significant role. These major differences indicate that extrapolation from information for non-melanoma skin cancer to melanoma is unlikely to be useful. We summarize in this review the experimental information available on the role of UV radiation in melanoma and give an overview of animal melanoma models. A new model derived by neonatal UV irradiation of hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor (HGF/SF) transgenic mice is described which recapitulates the etiology, the histopathology and molecular pathogenesis of human disease. It is anticipated that the HGF/SF transgenic model will provide a means to access the mechanism(s) by which sunlight initiates this lethal disease and provide an appropriate vehicle for derivation of appropriate therapeutic and preventive strategies.