The different mechanisms underlying the control of diurnal vs. nocturnal activity are still unknown. Regarding the nocturnal synthesis of the pineal hormone, melatonin, experiments performed on diurnal sheep or bovine and on nocturnal rat or hamster revealed important differences in the regulation of the melatonin rate-limiting enzyme, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AA-NAT). These observations raised the hypothesis that melatonin synthesis may be different in nocturnal vs. diurnal animals. In this study, we cloned the cDNA coding for Aa-nat and analysed the mechanisms of AA-NAT enzyme activation in the pineal gland of the diurnal grass rat, Arvicanthis ansorgei, and compared them to those of the nocturnal Wistar rat, Rattus norvegicus. Aa-nat gene sequences of both species are 86.6% identical. In Arvicanthis, Aa-nat gene expression is markedly increased at the beginning of the night and is followed by a large increase in AA-NAT activity and melatonin content. In contrast, at the end of the night, the decrease in AA-NAT activity and melatonin content precedes that of Aa-nat mRNA. A β-adrenergic agonist given at daytime reproduces the nocturnal activation of melatonin synthesis, whereas, a β-adrenergic antagonist given at night-time inhibits AA-NAT activity and melatonin synthesis independently of Aa-nat mRNA. The day–night regulation of melatonin synthesis in the pineal of the diurnal Arvicanthis, involving a transcriptional activation in early night and a post-translational inhibition at late night, is very similar to that of the nocturnal Wistar rat. In conclusion, the fundamental differences underlying melatonin synthesis among species rely upon phylogenetic rather than behavioural differences.