Behavioral Response of Free-Ranging Blue Crabs to Episodic Hypoxia

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Title: Behavioral Response of Free-Ranging Blue Crabs to Episodic Hypoxia
Author: Bell, Geoffrey Weszely
Advisors: David B. Eggleston, Committee Chair
Abstract: Hypoxia is increasing in frequency and magnitude in estuarine and coastal systems throughout the world. Very little is known about how periodic hypoxic intrusions into shallow, nearshore habitats influence local migration patterns and trophic dynamics of mobile species such as the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus. Studying these behavioral responses is important because hypoxic events may cause direct and indirect mortality of crabs and alter key trophic interactions. Moreover, when crabs recolonize deeper water habitats during the relaxation of hypoxic events they may increase consumption rates by feeding on slow-recovering infaunal prey, thus, altering higher level trophic dynamics. We used 1) biotelemetry techniques with concurrent water quality measurements to monitor movement and feeding responses of free-ranging crabs to spatiotemporal dynamics of water quality, and 2) a trawl survey to determine how periodic hypoxic upwelling events alter distribution and abundance patterns of blue crabs in nearshore habitats. Free-ranging blue crabs were moderately successful at avoiding drops in DO concentrations to hypoxic levels. They generally moved to higher DO concentrations and shallower depths but sometimes remained within hypoxic water for hours. Similarly, from our trawling study, most blue crabs were collected in relatively shallow water during hypoxic upwelling events, however, some crabs remained within near-anoxic mid-depth zones during these events. Although crabs fed within hypoxic water, most did not feed when DO concentrations dropped to or from hypoxic levels. The frequency of feeding did not increase when DO concentrations increased as was originally hypothesized, and is likely due to: 1) crabs foraging on prey other than sessile benthic infauna or 2) the duration of upwelling events which may not last long enough for infauna to migrate close enough to the sediment surface to be vulnerable to predation from blue crabs. One telemetered crab died after only a few hours of exposure to near-anoxic water during a hypoxic upwelling event. Thus, hypoxic upwelling events can kill even highly mobile species if they are not successful at avoiding rapidly dropping DO levels. Understanding the direct and indirect impacts of episodic hypoxic disturbance on free-ranging blue crabs will help to predict how poor water quality impacts blue crab population and trophic dynamics.
Date: 2002-07-02
Degree: MS
Discipline: Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

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