The cochleae of chick embryos of 8 days of incubation until hatching (21 days) were examined by scanning electron microscopy. Unlike what one would expect from the literature, the total number of hair cells per cochlea (10,405 +/- 529) is already determined and visible in a 10-day embryo and the growth of the cochlea is a result of the growth in size and surface area of the hair cells. We also find that the hair cells differentiate simultaneously throughout the cochlea and have followed the differentiation of individual hair cells throughout development. During development we find that the total number, hexagonal packing, and orientation of the stereocilia in each hair cell is determined early and accurately (9- to 10-day embryos). The stereocilia then begin to elongate in all the cells of the cochlea at approximately 0.5 micron/day. By Day 12 the tallest stereocilia in each cell are 1.5-1.8 micron long, the mature length for cells at the proximal end of the cochlea. At this point all stereocilia cease elongating, but those along the inferior edge gradually increase in width from 0.11 micron to maximally 0.19 micron in 17-day embryos. When the stereocilia on the inferior edge reach their mature width, widening ceases and the elongation of stereocilia in the distal hair cells begins again. When these stereocilia have attained their mature lengths, they stop growing. Thus elongation and widening of stereocilia are separated in time. During this period, 11 to 13 days, the shape of the tufts at the proximal end of the cochlea changes. This occurs because stereocilia in the front of each tuft are absorbed while others at the sides appear de novo. This rearrangement converts a circular bundle of stereocilia to a rectangular bundle.