The study of cell death in higher plants and animals has revealed the existence of an active (‘programmed’) process in most types of cell, and similarities in cell death between plants, animals, yeast and bacteria suggest an evolutionarily ancient origin of programmed cell death (PCD). Despite their global importance in primary production, information on algal cell death is limited. Algal cell death could have similarities with metazoan cell death. One morphotype of metazoan PCD, apoptosis, can be induced by light deprivation in the unicellular chlorophyte Dunaliella tertiolecta. The situation in other algal taxa is less clear. We used a model dinoflagellate (Amphidinium carterae) to test whether mortality during darkness and culture senescence showed apoptotic characteristics. Using transmission electron microscopy, fluorescent biomarkers, chlorophyll fluorescence and particulate carbon analysis we analysed the process of cell mortality and found that light deprivation caused mass mortality. By contrast, fewer dead cells (5–20% of the population) were found in late–phase cultures, while a similar degenerate cell morphology (shrunken, chlorotic) was observed. On morphological grounds, our observations suggest that the apoptotic cell death described in D. tertiolecta does not occur in A. carterae. Greater similarity was found with paraptosis, a recently proposed alternative morphotype of PCD. A paraptotic conclusion is supported by inconclusive DNA fragmentation results. We emphasize the care that must be taken in transferring fundamental paradigms between phylogenetically diverse cell types and we argue for a greater consistency in the burden of proof needed to assign causality to cell death processes.