The quadriflagellate snow alga Chlainomonas Christen, distributed in New Zealand and North America, has several unusual structural attributes. A process assumed to be cytokinesis involves extrusion of protoplasm from the parent through a narrow canal, C. kolii (J. T. Hardy et Curl) Hoham produces a net-like outer envelope rather than a cell wall, and the flagellar basal apparatus of Chlainomonas consists of two semi-independent pairs of basal bodies. Structural connections between basal body pairs appear minimal, but a connecting system different from that observed in other genera exists within each pair. Phylogenetic analysis using rbcL sequences places Chlainomonas in the Chloromonas clade, other known members of which are all biflagellate. Chlainomonas is split into two robust lineages, with New Zealand collections sharing an origin with northern North American collections. Although the quadriflagellate condition is regarded as ancestral in the Chlorophyceae, we speculate—based on ultrastructural and molecular data presented here—that Chlainomonas represents a derived form that has arisen from fusion of two ancestral biflagellate cells. Other explanations (for example, that Chlainomonas represents a diploid form of a biflagellate species) are remotely possible but are presently at odds with extensive observations of field material. Improvements in techniques for experimental manipulation of these sensitive cryophiles will be required to fully characterize their structure and progress our understanding of their biology.