The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of live metaphase II mouse eggs and prophase I-arrested oocytes was compared using the fluorescent, lipophilic dicarbocyanine dye, DiI. DiL, dissolved in soybean oil, was microinjected into oocytes and eggs; the dye diffused throughout the cytoplasm to label the ER, which was imaged by confocal microscopy. The mature egg had a fine reticular network of ER throughout the cell and numerous dense accumulations of membrane in the cortex. These ER accumulations, 1-2 microns in diameter, were generally absent deeper in the cytoplasm. A similar staining pattern was observed when the eggs were fixed within 1 min of injection, providing evidence that the cortical accumulations of membrane are part of a continuous ER membrane system, since membrane trafficking could not occur in a fixed egg. Cortical ER accumulations were localized to the same region of the egg as the cortical granules and were not observed in the cortical granule-free region adjacent to the meiotic spindle. In contrast, ER accumulations were rarely found in the cortex of the immature, prophase I-arrested oocyte, but larger and less well-defined membrane clusters were found throughout the deeper cytoplasm of the oocyte. The appearance of ER clusters in the egg cortex following oocyte maturation correlates with an increased ability of the mature egg to release calcium at fertilization. Since the ER is a calcium store, structural reorganization of the ER may be necessary to permit the large release of calcium and resulting cortical granule exocytosis at fertilization.