Rat sperm that are demembranated with Triton X-100 and reactivated with Mg-ATP show a strong mechanical response to the presence of free calcium ion. At pCa < 4, the midpiece region of the flagellum develops a strong and sustained curvature that gives the cell the overall appearance of a fishhook [Lindemann and Goltz, 1988: Cell Motil. Cytoskeleton 10:420-431]. In the present study, the force and torque that maintain the calcium-induced hook have been examined quantitatively. In addition, full-length and shortened flagella were manipulated to evaluate the plasticity of the hooks and determined the critical length necessary for maintaining the curvature. The hooks were found to be highly resilient, returning to their original configuration (>95%) after being straightened and released. The results from manipulating the shortened flagella suggest that the force holding the hook in the curved configuration is generated in the basal 60 microm of the flagellum. The force required to straighten the calcium-induced hooks was measured with force-calibrated glass microprobes, and the bending torque was calculated from the measured force. The force and torque required to straighten the flagellum were found to be proportional to the change in curvature of the hooked region of the flagellum, suggesting an elastic-like behavior. The average torque to open the hooks to a straight position was 2.6 (+/-1.4) x 10(-7) dyne x cm (2.6 x 10(-14) N x m) and the apparent stiffness was 4.3 (+/-1.3) x 10(-10) dyne x cm(2) (4.3 x 10(-19) N x m(2)). The stiffness of the hook was determined to be approximately one quarter the rigor stiffness of a rat sperm flagellum measured under comparable conditions.