In last few hours of maturation, the mouse oocyte takes up over twenty billion zinc atoms and arrests after the first meiotic division, until fertilization or pharmacological intervention stimulates cell cycle progression toward a new embryo. Using chemical and physical probes, we show that fertilization of the mature, zinc-enriched egg triggers the ejection of zinc into the extracellular milieu in a series of coordinated events termed zinc sparks. These events immediately follow the well-established series of calcium oscillations within the activated egg and are evolutionarily conserved in several mammalian species, including rodents and nonhuman primates. Functionally, the zinc sparks mediate a decrease in intracellular zinc content that is necessary for continued cell cycle progression, as increasing zinc levels within the activated egg results in the reestablishment of cell cycle arrest at metaphase. The mammalian egg thus uses a zinc-dependent switch mechanism to toggle between metaphase arrest and resumption of the meiotic cell cycle at the initiation of embryonic development.