Abstract Simultaneous fast birefringence and scattered light changes associated with crustacean nerve activation have different time courses and are produced by separate biophysical mechanisms. Technological advances in illumination, photodiodes and amplification circuitry achieved better signal-to-noise than earlier studies revealing optical signals in axonal nerve bundles as small as crayfish ventral cord and claw. The birefringence measurements yielded signals that could be observed in single trials, with temporally separated peaks associated with axonal populations of different diameters. A slit aperture placed perpendicular to the nerve reduced the spatial-temporal integration and enhanced the temporal structure of the separate peaks in the birefringence signal. Moving the slit aperture farther from the stimulation point delayed the signal in time, and also enhanced the separation between peaks. Different propagation velocities of the separate peaks provided evidence for at least three neuronal populations in the bundle. These studies underscore the advantages of birefringence over scattering measurements. Application of birefringence methods can optimize non-invasive imaging techniques being developed to detect fast optical responses associated with electrical neural activity in humans.