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Molecular keys unlock the mysteries of variable survival responses of blue crabs to hypoxia

Bell, Geoffrey W., Eggleston, David B., Noga, Edward J.
Oecologia 2010 v.163 no.1 pp. 57-68
Callinectes sapidus, air, anaerobic conditions, body size, crabs, dissolved oxygen, ecosystems, estuaries, exposure duration, fish, geographical variation, hypoxia, laboratory animals, physiological response, physiological state, probability, respiratory physiology, rivers, shellfish, surface water, water temperature, North Carolina
Hypoxia is a major stressor in coastal ecosystems, yet generalizing its impacts on fish and shellfish populations across hypoxic events is difficult due to variability among individuals in their history of exposure to hypoxia and related abiotic variables, and subsequent behavioral and survival responses. Although aquatic animals have diverse physiological responses to cope with hypoxia, we know little about how inter-individual variation in physiological state affects survival and behavioral decisions under hypoxic conditions. Laboratory experiments coupled with molecular techniques determined how extrinsic factors (e.g., water body and temperature) and respiratory physiology (hemocyanin concentration and structure) affected survival and behavior of adult blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) exposed to different levels of hypoxia over a 30-h time period. Nearly 100% of crabs survived the 1.3 mg dissolved oxygen (DO) l⁻¹ treatment (18.4% air saturation), suggesting that adult blue crabs are tolerant of severe hypoxia. Probability of survival decreased with increasing hypoxic exposure time, lower DO, and increasing temperature. Individual-level differences in survival correlated with water body and crab size. Crabs collected from the oligo/mesohaline and hypoxic Neuse River Estuary (NRE), North Carolina, USA survived hypoxic exposures longer than crabs from the euhaline and normoxic Bogue and Back Sounds, North Carolina. Furthermore, small NRE crabs survived longer than large NRE crabs. Hemocyanin (Hcy) concentration did not explain these individual-level differences, however, hypoxia-tolerant crabs had Hcy structures indicative of a high-O₂-affinity form of Hcy, suggesting Hcy “quality” (i.e., structure) may be more important for hypoxia survival than Hcy “quantity” (i.e., concentration). The geographic differences in survival we observed also highlight the importance of carefully selecting experimental animals when planning to extrapolate results to the population level.