1. Hypoxic conditions occur frequently during hot, dry summers in the small lentic waterbodies (billabongs) that occur on the floodplains of the Murray-Darling River system of Australia. Behavioural responses to progressive hypoxia were examined for the native and introduced floodplain fish of the Ovens River, an unregulated tributary of the Murray River in south-east Australia.
2. Given the high frequency of hypoxic episodes in billabongs on the Ovens River floodplain, it was hypothesised that all species would exhibit behaviours that would confer a degree of hypoxia-tolerance. Specifically, it was hypothesised that as hypoxia progressed, gill ventilation rates (GVRs) would increase and aquatic surface respiration (ASR) would become increasingly frequent. Fish were subjected to rapid, progressive hypoxia from normoxia to anoxia in open tanks.
3. All tested species exhibited behaviours consistent with their use of potentially hypoxic habitats. As hypoxia progressed, GVRs increased and all species, with the exception of oriental weatherloach, began to switch increasingly to ASR with 90% of individuals using ASR at various oxygen concentrations below 1.0 mg O2 L−1. Australian smelt, redfin perch and flat-headed galaxias were the first three species to rise to ASR, with 10% of individuals using ASR by 2.55, 2.29 and 2.21 mg O2 L−1 respectively. Goldfish and common carp were the last two species to rise to ASR, with 10% of individuals using ASR by 0.84 and 0.75 mg O2 L−1 respectively. In contrast to other species, oriental weatherloach largely ceased gill ventilation and used air-gulping as their primary means of respiration during severe hypoxia and anoxia.
4. Australian smelt, redfin perch and flat-headed galaxias were unable to maintain ASR under severe hypoxia, and began exhibiting erratic movements, termed terminal avoidance behaviour, and loss of equilibrium. All other species continued to use ASR through severe hypoxia and into anoxia. Following a rise to ASR, GVRs either remained steady or decreased slightly indicating partial or significant relief from hypoxic stress for these hypoxia-tolerant species.
5. Behavioural responses to progressive hypoxia amongst the fish species of the Ovens River floodplain indicate a generally high level of tolerance to periodic hypoxia. However, species-specific variation in hypoxia-tolerance may have implications for community structure of billabong fish communities following hypoxic events.