Cellular mechanisms that might affect the degradation of neurofilament proteins (NFPs) were examined in the distal segments of severed goldfish Mauthner axons (M-axons), which do not degenerate for more than 2 months after severance. Calpain levels, as determined by reactivity to a polyclonal antibody, remained constant for 80 d postseverance in distal segments of M-axons and then declined from 80 to 85 d postseverance. Calpain activity in rat brain, as determined by a spectrophotometric assay, was much higher than calpain activity in control and severed goldfish brain, spinal cord, muscle, or M-axons. Calpain activity was extremely low in M-axons compared with that in all other tissues and remained low for up to 80 d postseverance in distal segments of M-axons. Phosphorylated NFPs, as determined by Stains-All treatment of SDS gels, were maintained for up to 72 d postseverance and then decreased noticeably at 75 d postseverance when NFP breakdown products appeared on silver-stained gels. By 85 d post-severance, phosphorylated NFPs no longer were detected, and NFP breakdown products were the most prominent bands on silver-stained gels. These results suggest that the distal segments of M-axons survive for months after severance, because NFPs are maintained in a phosphorylated state that stabilizes and protects NFPs from degradation by low levels of calpain activity in the M-axon; the distal segments of severed M-axons degenerate eventually when NFPs no longer are maintained in a phosphorylated state and become susceptible to degradation, possibly by low levels of calpain activity in the M-axon.