Immune cell trafficking is crucial to the performance of the surveillance as well as effector functions of the immune system. Because immune cells travel between tissues through the bloodstream, the numbers and proportions of leukocytes in the circulation provide an important representation of the state of leukocyte distribution in the body. The studies described here examine significant and selective changes in numbers and percentages of peripheral blood leukocyte subpopulations in the rat. These changes were rapidly induced under conditions of mild acute stress. Stress-induced increases in plasma corticosterone were accompanied by a significant decrease in numbers and percentages of lymphocytes, and by an increase in numbers and percentages of neutrophils. flow cytometric analysis revealed that B cell, NK cell, and monocyte numbers showed a greater stress-induced decrease than did T cells. All stress-induced changes were observed during the light (inactive) as well as the dark (active) period of the animal's diurnal cycle. Importantly, the stress-induced changes in leukocyte numbers and percentages were rapidly reversed upon the cessation of stress. Furthermore, the effects of stress were largely dependent on adrenal hormones, because the magnitude of the stress-induced changes was significantly reduced in adrenalectomized animals. Moreover, administration of corticosterone to adrenalectomized animals resulted in a close replication of stress-induced changes observed in adrenal-intact animals. These results suggest that endocrine factors released during stress modulate leukocyte trafficking and result in the redistribution of leukocytes between the blood and other immune compartments. Such a redistribution may significantly affect the ability of the immune system to respond to potential or ongoing immune challenge.