The lymphatic system is essential for fluid homeostasis, fat absorption and immune responses, and also plays key roles under pathological conditions, such as tumor metastasis, lymphoedema and inflammation. The main function of the lymphatic vascular system is to return excess interstitial fluid back to the blood vascular system. Lymph, including fluid, macromolecules, leukocytes and activated antigen-presenting cells, is transported from the blind-ended lymphatic capillaries toward the collecting lymphatic vessels; for there, it is returned to the blood circulation through lymphatico-venous junctions (Alitalo et al. in Nature 438:946-954, 2005). Despite its importance, lymphangiogenesis remains poorly understood. The lack of specific markers has complicated the identification of lymph vessels, and a small animal model that could be genetically manipulated to discover the function of novel lymphangiogenic candidates has only recently become available (Ny et al. in Nat Med 11(9):998-1004, 2005). Since 2004, we have worked to make the zebrafish a new genetic model for unraveling the function of candidate genes involved in lymphangiogenesis. We have demonstrated that zebrafish possess a lymphatic vascular system that shares the morphological, molecular and functional characteristics of the lymphatic vessels found in other vertebrates (Yaniv et al. in Nat Med 12(6):711-716, 2006). In this process, we realized that it was necessary to seek a common definition for the lymph system which would be applicable from fish to man. The aim of this article is to review classical, mainly morphological, studies in order to elucidate the nature of the lymphatic system.