Chlamydomonas cells excise their flagella in response to a variety of experimental conditions (e.g., extremes of temperature or pH, alcohol or detergent treatment, and mechanical shear). Here, we show that flagellar excision is an active process whereby microtubules are severed at select sites within the transition zone. The transition zone is located between the flagellar axoneme and the basal body; it is characterized by a pair of central cylinders that have an H shape when viewed in longitudinal section. Both central cylinders are connected to the A tubule of each microtubule doublet of the transition zone by fibers (~5 nm diam). When viewed in cross section, these fibers are seen to form a distinctive stellate pattern characteristic of the transition zone (Manton, I. 1964. J.R. Microsc. Soc. 82: 279-285; Ringo, D.L. 1967. J. Cell Biol. 33: 543-571)]. We demonstrate that at the time of flagellar excision these fibers contract and displace the microtubule doublets of the axoneme inward. We believe that the resulting shear force and torsional load act to sever the axonemal microtubules immediately distal to the central cylinder. Structural alterations of the transition zone during flagellar excision occur both in living cells and detergent-extracted cell models, and are dependent on the presence of calcium (≥ 10-6 M). Immunolocalization using monoclonal antibodies against the calcium-binding protein centrin demonstrates the presence of centrin in the fiber-based stellate structure of the transition zone of wild-type cells. Examination of the flagellar autotomy mutant, fa-1, which fails to excise its flagella (Lewin, R., and C. Burrascano. 1983. Experientia. 39: 1397-1398), demonstrates that the fa-1 transition zone also contains centrin. However, fa-1 lacks the ability to completely contract the fibers of the stellate structure. We conclude that flagellar excision in Chlamydomonas involves microtubule severing that is mediated by the action of calcium-sensitive contractile fibers of the transition zone. These observations have led us to question whether microtubule severing may be a more general phenomenon than previously suspected and to suggest that microtubule severing may contribute to the dynamic behavior of cytoplasmic microtubules in other cells.