Previous studies suggest that ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) may represent one of the extrinsic signals controlling the development of vertebrate retinal photoreceptors. In dissociated cultures from embryonic chick retina, exogenously applied CNTF has been shown to act on postmitotic rod precursor cells, resulting in an two- to fourfold increase in the number of cells acquiring an opsin-positive phenotype. We now demonstrate that the responsiveness of photoreceptor precursors to CNTF is confined to a brief phase between their final mitosis and their terminal differentiation owing to the temporally restricted expression of the CNTF receptor (CNTFR alpha). As shown immunocytochemically, CNTFR alpha expression in the presumptive photoreceptor layer of the chick retina starts at embryonic day 8 (E8) and is rapidly down-regulated a few days later prior to the differentiation of opsin-positive photoreceptors, both in vivo and in dissociated cultures from E8. We further show that the CNTF-dependent in vitro differentiation of rods is followed by a phase of photoreceptor-specific apoptotic cell death. The loss of differentiated rods during this apoptotic phase can be prevented by micromolar concentrations of retinol. Our results provide evidence that photoreceptor development depends on the sequential action of different extrinsic signals. The time course of CNTFR alpha expression and the in vitro effects suggest that CNTF or a related molecule is required during early stages of rod differentiation, while differentiated rods depend on additional protective factors for survival.