We have investigated the time course and magnitude of cellular degeneration in the ganglion cell layer and the presumptive amacrine and bipolar regions of the inner nuclear layer during the development of the retina in the rat. Pyknotic profiles are present in the ganglion cell layer during the first 2 postnatal weeks, reaching peak numbers during the first 4 postnatal days (corresponding to the time of greatest loss of ganglion cells and their axons: Potts et al., '82; Lam et al., '82; Perry et al., '83). Two observations suggest that the majority of pyknotic profiles present in the ganglion cell layer during the second postnatal week are not ganglion cells. First, following injection of kainic acid into one superior colliculus, degenerating ganglion cells in the contralateral retina are cleared within 24-48 hours. Therefore, since most ganglion cell and axon loss occurs within the first postnatal week, few of the pyknotic profiles present in the second week are likely to be ganglion cells. Second, the time course of cellular degeneration in the ganglion cell layer during the second postnatal week follows a very similar pattern to that seen in the presumptive amacrine sublayer of the inner nuclear layer. Such a correspondence suggests that two phases of cell death occur in the ganglion cell layer: during the first postnatal week the majority of dying cells are ganglion cells, and in the second, most cell death is due to a loss of displaced amacrine cells. In the inner nuclear layer pyknotic profiles are most numerous in the presumptive amacrine region on postnatal days 6 and 7, and in the presumptive bipolar region on day 10. Synaptogenesis in the inner plexiform layer occurs later but reflects the order of cell death. Thus, conventional (presumed amacrine) synapses were first observed on day 11 and synaptic ribbons (indicative of bipolar synapses) on day 13. These observations suggest that amacrine and bipolar cells initiate synapses only after their numbers have stabilized.