Of all the stages of mammalian folliculogenesis, the primordial to primary follicle transition is the least understood. In order to gain new insights into this process, we have conducted a comprehensive morphological, morphometric and molecular study of ovarian organisation and early follicle development in the rabbit. The structure of ovaries collected from rabbits aged from 2-12 weeks (a period encompassing primordial follicle formation, activation and the first wave of folliculogenesis in this species) has been analysed by light microscopy and the follicles present have been measured and scored for their developmental stage. To establish useful molecular markers of activation, we have further classified follicles according to their expression of the proliferative marker, proliferating cell nuclear antigen, and the zona pellucida protein, ZPB. The activation of primordial follicles is initiated immediately following their formation in the rabbit ovary and is characterised by oocyte growth, granulosa cell morphogenesis and increased granulosa cell mitosis. Enhanced ZPB protein expression at the oolemma is also associated with follicle activation and development. Few primordial follicles in the juvenile rabbit ovary are lost by atresia, as assessed by the TUNEL assay. The appearance of apoptotic granulosa cells is however coincident with the development of antral follicles. This study thus describes the temporal and spatial regulation of early follicular development in the post-natal rabbit ovary and, for the first time, shows that the primordial to primary transition in the juvenile rabbit is a highly ordered process occurring within quantifiable parameters. © 2006 Springer-Verlag.