Transient low-oxygen patches may have important consequences for the population dynamics of estuarine species. We investigated whether these transient hypoxic patches altered population dynamics of the commercially important blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) and assessed two alternative hypotheses for the causal mechanism. One hypothesis is that temporary reductions in habitat due to hypoxia increase cannibalism. The second hypothesis is that crab population dynamics result from food limitation caused by hypoxia-induced mortality of the benthos. We developed a spatially explicit individual-based model of blue crabs in a hierarchical framework to connect the autoecology of crabs with the spatial and temporal dynamics of their physical and biological environments. Three primary scenarios were run to examine the interactive effects of (1) hypoxic extent vs. static and transient patches, (2) hypoxic extent vs. prey abundance, and (3) hypoxic extent vs. cannibalism potential. Static patches resulted in populations limited by egg production and recruitment whereas transient patches led to populations limited by the effects of cannibalism and patch interactions. Crab survivorship was greatest for simulations with the largest hypoxic patches which also had the lowest prey abundance and lowest crab densities. In these simulations, nearly all crab mortality was accounted for by aggression, not starvation. In addition, increased prey abundance had little influence on crab abundance and dynamics, and massive reductions in prey abundance (> 50%) were necessary to decrease crab abundance, survival, and egg production. Our analyses suggest that cannibalism coupled with decreased egg production determined key aspects of crab demography. Specifically, decreased cannibalism potential resulted in a food-limited crab population with long development times and high adult crab densities whereas increased cannibalism potential led to low adult crab densities with higher individual egg production rates. Our analyses identified several key knowledge gaps, including the nature of crab-crab cannibalism and the role of refuges from predation. Several experiments are suggested to test model predictions and to improve understanding of ecosystem-population linkages for this estuarine species.
© 2006 by the Ecological Society of America. Craig A. Aumann, Lisa A. Eby, and William F. Fagan 2006. HOW TRANSIENT PATCHES AFFECT POPULATION DYNAMICS: THE CASE OF HYPOXIA AND BLUE CRABS. Ecological Monographs 76:415–438. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/0012-9615(2006)076[0415:HTPAPD]2.0.CO;2.