The chromosome complements (karyotypes) of animals display a great diversity in number and morphology. Against this background, the genomes of all species are remarkably conserved, not only in transcribed sequences, but also in some chromosome-specific non-coding sequences and in gene order. A close examination with chromosome painting shows that this conservation can be resolved into small numbers of large chromosomal segments. Rearrangement of these segments into different combinations explains much of the observed diversity in species karyotypes. Here we discuss how these rearrangements come about, and show how their analysis can determine the evolutionary relationships of all mammals and their descent from a common ancestor.