Calcium ions play critical roles in neuronal development, but the factors that govern spontaneous fluctuations in intracellular calcium are not well understood. Transient, repeated elevations of calcium in embryonic Xenopus spinal neurons have been recorded over periods of 1 hr in vitro and in vivo, confocally imaging fluo-3-loaded cells at 5 sec intervals. Calcium spikes and calcium waves are found both in neurons in culture and in the intact spinal cord. Spikes rise rapidly to approximately 400% of baseline fluorescence and have a characteristic double exponential decay, while waves rise slowly to approximately 200% of baseline fluorescence and decay slowly as well. Imaging of fura-2-loaded neurons indicates that intracellular calcium increases from 50 to 500 nM during spikes. Both spikes and waves are abolished by removal of extracellular calcium. Developmentally, the incidence and frequency of spikes decrease while the incidence and frequency of waves are constant. Spikes are generated by spontaneous calcium-dependent action potentials that can be triggered by low- threshold, T-type calcium current and are eliminated by agents that block voltage-dependent calcium channels. They can be elicited by depolarization, are generated in an all-or-none manner, and are rapidly and bidirectionally propagated. Spikes also utilize intracellular calcium stores, since blocking release from stores substantially reduces their amplitude. Waves are not elicited by depolarization nor by activation of glutamate receptors, and are propagated at a rate consistent with diffusion of calcium. Waves are blocked by Ni2+ at a higher concentration than required to block classical voltage-dependent calcium channels. Previous work now suggests that spikes are required for expression of the transmitter GABA and for potassium channel modulation. The present study indicates that waves in growth cones are likely to regulate neurite extension.