Infiltration of compound eyes of crayfish, Cherax destructor, with the thiol protease inhibitor Ep-475 or with trifluoperazine prior to fixation for electron microscopy was found to stabilize an axial filament of 6-12 nm diam within each rhabdomeral microvillus of the photoreceptors. Rhabdoms isolated from retinal homogenates by sucrose gradient centrifugation under conditions that stabilize cytoskeletal material contained large amounts of a 42-kd polypeptide that co-migrated with insect flight muscle actin in one- and two-dimensional PAGE, inhibited pancreatic DNase l, and bound to vertebrate myosin. Vertebrate skeletal muscle actin added to retinal homogenates did not co-purify with rhabdoms, implying that actin was not a contaminant from nonmembranous structures. DNase l inhibition assays of detergent-lysed rhabdoms indicated the presence of large amounts of filamentous actin provided ATP was present. Monomeric actin in such preparations was completely polymerizable only after 90 min incubation with equimolar phalloidin. More than half of the actin present could be liberated from the membrane by sonication, indicating a loose association with the membrane. However, a large proportion of the actin was tightly bound to the rhabdomeral membrane, and washing sonicated membrane fractions with solutions of a range of ionic strengths and nonionic detergents failed to remove it. Antibodies to scallop actin only bound to frozen sections of rhabdoms after gentle permeabilization and very long incubation periods, probably because of steric hindrance and the hydrophobicity of the structure. The F-actin probe nitrobenzoxadiazol phallacidin bound to rhabdoms and labeled F-actin aggregates in other retinal components, but rhabdom fluorescence was not abolished by preincubation with phalloidin. The biochemical data indicate the existence of two distinct actin-based cytoskeletal systems, one being closely membrane associated. The other may possibly constitute the axial filament, although the evidence for this is equivocal.