Although there have been few demonstrations of a direct empirical relationship between environmental enrichment and reproductive success in captive animals, indirect and anecdotal evidence indicates the importance of physical and temporal complexity for reproduction. We discuss three major mechanisms through which environmental enrichment that specifically increases the complexity of an animal's surroundings may influence reproductive physiology and behavior: developmental processes, modulation of stress and arousal, and modification of social interactions. In complex environments developing animals learn that performing active behavior produces appropriate functional outcomes. Learning to control their environment influences their ability to adapt to novel situations, which may profoundly influence their reproductive behavior as adults in breeding situations. Chronic stress may compromise reproductive physiology and behavior; enrichment reduces stress by providing increased opportunity for behavioral coping responses. However, some degree of acute stress may be beneficial for reproduction by maintaining an animal's level of responsiveness to socio-sexual stimuli necessary for sexual arousal and reproductive activation. Finally, environmental enrichment may influence reproductive success by stabilizing social groups, reducing aggression and increasing affiliative and play behaviors. It is concluded that multi-variate multi-institutional behavioral research in zoos will play an increasingly important role in the successful captive propagation of many species by closely examining relationships between environmental variables and reproductive potential of individual animals. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.