The energetic consequences of fighting, which may depend on environmental conditions, can be an important factor shaping contest strategy and duration. Energy expenditure may be costly to fitness because it depletes reserves that could otherwise have been allocated to reproduction, and metabolites are produced that may constrain subsequent activities. We examined the variation in the metabolic consequences of fighting in relation to hypoxia. Contests were staged between pairs of size-matched male shore crabs Carcinus maenas L., under a range of water oxygen tensions (between 10 and 100% oxygen saturation) which crabs experience in their natural habitat. Fighting under normoxic and hypoxic conditions resulted in significantly elevated concentrations of haemolymph metabolites (L-lactate and glucose) compared with crabs at rest. However, these concentrations were much lower than in crabs that had been walking on a treadmill. Glycogen concentrations differed only under hypoxic conditions: glycogen stores were reduced in crabs after fighting and this reduction was similar to that after exercise on a treadmill. Contests were shorter when they were staged below a water P o2of 6.7 kPa ( approximately 30% normoxia). As water oxygen tensions were reduced, fighting crabs had greater concentrations of L-lactate and glucose in their blood and tissues whilst glycogen stores were reduced. Fights became shorter when crabs were exposed to severe hypoxia (P o2=2 kPa) for increasing lengths of time, and blood L-lactate concentrations increased. The results suggest that as fights progressed, crabs experienced an increasing metabolic debt, in the form of accumulation of L-lactate and a reduction in energy stores, which was amplified by hypoxic conditions. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.