1. Previous studies in a variety of ecosystems have shown that ecologically and economically important benthic and bentho-pelagic fishes avoid hypoxic (<2 mg O2 L−1) habitats by moving vertically or horizontally to more oxygenated areas. While avoidance of hypoxic conditions generally leads to a complete shift away from preferred benthic prey, some individual fish continue to consume benthic prey items in spite of bottom hypoxia, suggesting complex habitat utilisation and foraging patterns. For example, Lake Erie yellow perch (Perca flavescens) continue to consume benthic prey, despite being displaced vertically and horizontally by hypolimnetic hypoxia.
2. We hypothesised that hypolimnetic hypoxia can negatively affect yellow perch by altering their distribution and inducing energetically expensive foraging behaviour. To test this hypothesis, we used drifting hydroacoustics and trawl sampling to quantify water column distribution, sub-daily vertical movement and foraging behaviour of yellow perch within hypoxic and normoxic habitats of Lake Erie’s central basin during August-September 2007. We also investigated the effects of rapid changes in ambient oxygen conditions on yellow perch consumption potential by exposing yellow perch to various static and fluctuating oxygen conditions in a controlled laboratory experiment.
3. Our results indicate that, while yellow perch in general avoid hypoxic conditions, some individuals undertake foraging forays into hypoxic habitats where they experience greater fluctuations in abiotic conditions (pressure, temperature and oxygen concentration) than at normoxic sites. However, laboratory results suggest short-term exposure to low oxygen conditions did not negatively impact consumption potential of yellow perch.
4. Detailed understanding of sub-daily individual behaviours may be crucial for determining interactive individual- and ecosystem-level effects of stressors such as hypoxia.