The inner ear in rats develops from the surface ectoderm on day 8 of a 22‐day gestational period. Labeled thymidine incorporation studies have indicated that in the developing inner ear most of the cells undergo terminal mitosis between gestational days 13 and 15. During this period the developing inner ear would be particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards. To test this hypothesis, pregnant rats were given a single intraperitoneal injection of 5‐fluoro‐2′‐deoxyuridine (FUdR), an antimitotic substance, on gestational days 12 to 16. The rats also received one injection of 3H‐thymidine 1 h prior to the removal of the fetuses. The animals were killed after various time intervals following the treatment, and the otocysts or inner ears were prepared for morphologic observations and biochemical assays. The cells in the inner ear of rats exposed to FUdR exhibited pyknotic nuclei and chromatolytic degeneration, and they eventually died. By 4 h after the administration of FUdR, pyknotic nuclei were seen in the antiluminal zone of the otic epithelium, and there was a substantial decrease in the number of the otic cells. This decline in cell number was seen until 24 h after treatment. However, the inner ears from the fetuses exposed to FUdR during gestational days 12–15 showed complete recovery from the toxic effects of the drug when examined on day 21 of gestation. The phenomenon of programmed cell death observed in the developing inner ear of the rat indicates that more cells are produced during the earlier stages of development than are required for the definitive adult structures. This phenomenon may represent an important protective feature. The redundant production of cells perhaps allows the developing otocyst to respond to an environmental stress by subtotal destruction of cells from the pool of undifferentiated cells, resulting in relatively fewer congenital anomalies of the inner ear.