The harderian gland was first described in 1694 by Johann Jacob Harder (1656-1711). It occurs in most terrestrial vertebrates and is located within the orbit where, in some species, it is the largest structure. It may be compound tubular or compound tubuloalveolar, and its secretory duct is usually morphologically distinct only after leaving the substance of the gland to open on the surface of the nictitating membrane. The tubules of the gland are formed of a single layer of columnar epithelial cells surrounded by myoepithelial cells. The chief product(s) of the gland varies between different groups of vertebrates, and epithelial cells possess granules or vacuoles whose contents may be mucous, serous or lipid. In rodents, the gland synthesises lipids, porphyrins and indoles. In the case of lipid vacuoles, the gland is unusual in releasing these by an exocytotic mechanism. It is unclear whether the gland can act both as an exocrine and endocrine organ. There is control of gland structure and synthesis through a variety of humoral agents, including gonadal, thyroid and pituitary hormones; in addition there is a rich autonomic innervation and many neuropeptides have been identified. The proposed functions of the gland are remarkably diverse and include the gland being (1) a source of 'saliva', (2) a site of immune response, (3) a photoprotective organ, (4) part of a retinal-pineal axis, (5) a source of pheromones, (6) a source of thermoregulatory lipids, (7) a site of osmoregulation, and (8) a source of growth factors. The gland is discussed in terms of its embryology and phylogeny, and in relation to ecological variables. Several goals of future research are identified.