The skeletal matrix in terrestrial vertebrates undergoes continual cycles of removal and replacement in the processes of bone growth, repair and remodeling. The osteoclast is uniquely important in bone resorption and thus is implicated in the pathogenesis of clinically important bone and joint diseases. Activated osteoclasts form a resorptive hemivacuole with the bone surface into which they release both acid and osteoclastic lysosomal hydrolases. This article reviews cell physiological studies of the local mechanisms that regulate the resorptive process. These used in vitro methods for the isolation, culture and direct study of the properties of neonatal rat osteoclasts. They demonstrated that both local microvascular agents and products of the bone resorptive process such as ambient Ca2+ could complement longer-range systemic regulatory mechanisms such as those that might be exerted through calcitonin (CT). Thus elevated extracellular [Ca2+], or applications of surrogate divalent cation agonists for Ca2+, inhibited bone resorptive activity and produced parallel increases in cytosolic [Ca2+], cell retraction and longer-term inhibition of enzyme release in isolated rat osteoclasts. These changes showed specificity, inactivation, and voltage-dependent properties that implicated a cell surface Ca2+ receptor (CaR) sensitive to millimolar extracellular [Ca2+]. Pharmacological, biophysical and immunochemical evidence implicated a ryanodine-receptor (RyR) type II isoform in this process and localized it to a unique, surface membrane site, with an outward-facing channel-forming domain. Such a surface RyR might function either directly or indirectly in the process of extracellular [Ca2+] sensing and in turn be modulated by cyclic adenosine diphosphate ribose (cADPr) produced by the ADP-ribosyl cyclase, CD38. The review finishes by speculating about possible detailed models for these transduction events and their possible interactions with other systemic mechanisms involved in Ca2+ homeostasis as well as the possible role of the RyR-based signaling mechanisms in longer-term cell regulatory processes.