1. Pulmonary surfactant is a mixture of lipids and proteins that lines the air-liquid interface of the lungs of all vertebrates. In mammals, it functions to reduce and vary surface tension, which helps to decrease the work of breathing, provide alveolar stability and prevent alveolar oedema. The present review examines the evolution and relative importance of these surface activity related functions in the lungs of vertebrates. 2. The surface activity of surfactant from fish, amphibians, birds and most reptiles is generally very low, correlating with a low body temperature and a low disaturated phosholipid content of their surfactant. In contrast, the surfactant of those reptiles with a higher preferred body temperature, as well as that of birds and mammals, has a much higher surface activity. 3. The two main functions of surfactant in mammals are to provide alveolar stability and to increase compliance of the relatively stiff bronchoalveolar lung. As the respiratory units of most non-mammalian vertebrates are up to 1000-fold larger and up to 100-fold more compliant, surfactant is not required for these functions. 4. In non-mammals, surfactant appears to act as an anti-glue preventing the adhesion of respiratory surfaces that may occur when the lungs collapse (e.g. during diving, swallowing of prey or on expiration). Surfactant also controls lung fluid balance. These functions can be fulfilled by a surfactant with relatively low surface activity and may represent the primitive functions of surface active material in vertebrate lungs.