When the growth cone of a chick dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurite contacts the neurite of a chick retinal ganglion cell in vitro, the growth cone typically responds by withdrawing its lamellipodia and filopodia and collapsing. We have used the fluorescent calcium indicator dye fura-2 and digital imaging microscopy to measure calcium levels within DRG growth cones and to determine whether changes in calcium levels are responsible for the collapse of growth cone morphology when a DRG growth cone contacts a retinal ganglion cell neurite. Calcium levels within DRG growth cones were stable during neurite outgrowth. Calcium was typically distributed homogeneously throughout the growth cone, though occasionally gradients of free calcium were present. When calcium gradients were observed, calcium levels appeared higher in the active veil regions than in the central core region. Calcium levels in DRG growth cones appeared to remain stable during the period of contact-mediated growth cone collapse. Low concentrations of the calcium ionophore ionomycin increased calcium levels two- to threefold without having any observable morphological effects on DRG growth cones. Likewise, depolarization with 15 mM KCl caused a transient two- to threefold increase in calcium levels without having any observable morphological effect. These results suggest that changes in calcium levels are not responsible for contact-mediated collapse of growth cone structure. A growth cone collapsing activity has been solubilized from embryonic chick brain (Raper and Kapfhammer, 1990). Application of this material to cultures of DRG neurons caused growth cones to collapse but had no effect on calcium levels within the growth cones. The crude growth cone collapsing activity was not blocked by the presence of cobalt, nickel, lanthanum, nifedipine, or reduced- calcium medium, suggesting that transmembrane calcium fluxes were not required for growth cone collapse. These results suggest that the morphological changes associated with the collapse of growth cone structure can be independent of changes in growth cone calcium levels, and that second messengers other than calcium are likely to be involved in the regulation of many growth cone behaviors.