Whether inbreeding affects the demography and persistence of natural populations has been questioned. However, new pedigree data from field populations and molecular and analytical tools for tracing patterns of relationship and inbreeding have now enhanced our ability to detect inbreeding depression within and among wild populations. This work reveals that levels of inbreeding depression vary across taxa, populations and environments, but are usually substantial enough to affect both individual and population performance. Data from bird and mammal populations suggest that inbreeding depression often significantly affects birth weight, survival, reproduction and resistance to disease, predation and environmental stress. Plant studies, based mostly on comparing populations that differ in size or levels of genetic variation, also reveal significant inbreeding effects on seed set, germination, survival and resistance to stress. Data from butterflies, birds and plants demonstrate that populations with reduced genetic diversity often experience reduced growth and increased extinction rates. Crosses between such populations often result in heterosis. Such a genetic rescue effect might reflect the masking of fixed deleterious mutations. Thus, it might be necessary to retain gene flow among increasingly fragmented habitat patches to sustain populations that are sensitive to inbreeding.