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

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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.

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We would like to thank the following people for their valuable help with lab experiments and input on molecular techniques: G. Plaia, C. Huggett, J. Stephenson, J. Corrales, A. Ullal, J.-K. Seo, G. Godette, and M. Brouwer. Funding for this research was provided by research grants from the National Science Foundation (OCE-0221099) and the North Carolina Blue Crab Research Program (01-POP-08) to D. B. Eggleston; the North Carolina Blue Crab Research Program (03-BIOL-01), the National Sea Grant College Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Biotechnology Program (grant BR-01, NA16-RG-2251), the Blue Crab Advanced Research Consortium via the University of Maryland, and the USDA–NRI Competitive Grant Program (project no. 2006-35204-17508) to E. J. Noga, as well as EPA STAR and North Carolina Beautiful fellowships to G. W. Bell.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey W. Bell.

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Communicated by Craig Osenberg.

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Bell, G.W., Eggleston, D.B. & Noga, E.J. Molecular keys unlock the mysteries of variable survival responses of blue crabs to hypoxia. Oecologia 163, 57–68 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-009-1539-y

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  • Hypoxia
  • Survival
  • Behavior
  • Physiology
  • Hemocyanin