Microtubule (MT) response to different steady state temperatures and to rapid shifts in temperature was studied quantitatively in large, thin cells (LT-cells) from the goldfish scale. MT number and total tubulin concentration per cell were found to be fairly constant in cells from the same fish, regardless of cell size but between fish, could differ by a factor of two. The total tubulin concentration was similar to that found in mammalian tissue culture cells and the proportion in MT form increased with increasing steady state temperature. Total MT length quickly and exponentially decreased when cells were rapidly chilled to approximately -3 degrees C. In contrast, the average length of the MTs bound to the MT organizing center (MTOC) did not significantly change. Free MTs were generated during chilling and had an average length roughly half that of bound MTs. These observations suggest that 1) there is a functional block to rapid depolymerization at the unattached end of the MTOC bound MTs and 2) depolymerization of the MT occurs from the originally bound end only after its release from the MTOC. The presence of free MTs in a wide variety of cells suggests that these two features may be characteristic of steady state MTs in other cells. When the temperature of the LT-cells was abruptly raised, the number of MTs initiated on the MTOC rapidly increased and reached a brief steady state long before the MTs completely elongated. Many MTs then apparently detached from the MTOC and depolymerized before a final steady state was reached. When cells containing newly polymerized MTs were chilled to approximately -3 degrees C, the MTs detached from the MTOC more rapidly than those starting from steady state. Furthermore, the block to depolymerization at the unattached end was not complete. These observations suggest that newly formed, non-steady state MTs are different from the older, steady state MTs.