Cilia with a distal membrane expansion enclosing a coiled end of the axoneme (paddle cilia or discocilia) have been commonly reported in marine invertebrates. We recently showed that paddle cilia in molluscan veligers are artifacts of non-physiological conditions. Here we investigated the possible mechanisms of formation of paddle cilia under hypotonic conditions; particularly, whether a helical conformational change of doublet microtubules induced by Ca or proton flux is responsible. Typical paddle cilia are induced by hypotonic Ca-free solutions at normal or low pH, showing that axonemal coiling does not require Ca influx or proton efflux. In addition, Triton-demembranated straight axonemes do not coil in high Ca solutions. Most decisively, complete removal of paddle ciliary membranes with detergents, but not mere permeabilization, causes immediate uncoiling and straightening of the axonemes to approximately their original length before hypotonic treatment. These findings and other data show that axonemal coiling in paddles is due to membrane tensile stress acting on an elastic axoneme. Light and electron microscopy of paddles show that axonemes coil uniformly toward the direction of the effective stroke (doublets nos 5-6), even when beating is inhibited by sodium azide or glutaraldehyde before hypotonic treatment. This indicates that axonemes possess an intrinsic asymmetry of stiffness within the beat plane, independent of active microtubule sliding. Paddle cilia thus reveal important mechanical properties of ciliary axonemes and membranes that should be useful for understanding ciliary function.