The genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) have become the target of choice for studies wishing to examine adaptively important genetic diversity in natural populations. Within Molecular Ecology alone, there have been 71 papers on aspects of MHC evolution over the past few years, with an increasing year on year trend. This focus on the MHC is partly driven by the hypothesized links between MHC gene dynamics and ecologically interesting and relevant traits, such as mate choice and host–parasite interactions. However, an ability to pin down the evolutionary causes and ecological consequences of MHC variation in natural populations has proven challenging and has been hampered by the very issue that is attractive about MHC genes – their high levels of diversity. Linking high levels of MHC diversity to ecological factors in inherently complex natural populations requires a level of experimental design and analytical rigour that is extremely difficult to achieve owing to a plethora of potentially confounding and interacting variables. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Smith et al. (2010) elegantly overcome the challenge of detecting complex interactions in complex systems by using an intricate analytical approach to demonstrate a role for MHC in the reproductive ability of a natural population of the European hare Lepus europaeus (Fig. 1). Also in this issue, Oppelt et al. (2010) demonstrate a role for MHC variation in determining levels of hepatic coccidian infection in the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus (Fig. 2).