Recent comparative studies point to the importance of mortality schedules as determinants in the evolution of life-history characteristics. In this paper, we compare patterns of mortality from natural populations of mammals with a variety of life histories. We find that, after removing the effects of body weight, mortality is the best predictor of variation in life-history traits. Mammals with high levels of natural mortality tend to mature early and give birth to small offspring in large litters after a short gestation, before and after body size effects are factored out. We examine the way in which life-history traits relate to juvenile mortality versus adult mortality and find that juvenile mortality is more highly correlated with life-history traits than is adult mortality. We discuss the necessity of distinguishing between extrinsic sources of mortality (e.g. predation) and mortality caused by intrinsic sources (e.g. costs of reproduction), and the role that ecology might play in the evolution of patterns of mortality and fecundity. We conclude that these results must be explained not simply in the light of the demographic necessity of balancing mortality and fecundity, but as a result of age-specific costs and benefits of reproduction and parental investment. Detailed comparative studies of mortality patterns in natural populations of mammals offer a promising avenue towards understanding the evolution of life-history strategies.