Does size matter for hypoxia tolerance in fish?

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2008 May;83(2):173-89. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2008.00038.x. Epub 2008 Apr 8.


Fish cover a large size range, from milligrams to tonnes, and many of them are regularly exposed to large variations in ambient oxygen levels. For more than half a century, there have been various, often divergent, claims regarding the effect of body size on hypoxia tolerance in fish. Here, we attempt to link old and new empirical data with the current understanding of the physiological mechanisms behind hypoxia tolerance. Three main conclusions are drawn: (1) body size per se has little or no impact on the ability to take up oxygen during hypoxic conditions, primarily because the respiratory surface area matches metabolic rate over a wide size range. If size-related differences are seen in the ability for oxygen uptake in a species, these are likely to reflect adaptation to different life-styles or habitat choice. (2) During severe hypoxia and anoxia, where fish have to rely on anaerobic ATP production (glycolysis) for survival, large individuals have a clear advantage over smaller ones, because small fish will run out of glycogen or reach lethal levels of anaerobic end-products (lactate and H(+)) much faster due to their higher mass-specific metabolic rate. (3) Those fish species that have evolved extreme adaptations to hypoxia, including haemoglobins with exceptionally high oxygen affinities and an alternative anaerobic end-product (ethanol), reveal that natural selection can be a much more powerful determinant of hypoxia tolerance than scaling of physiological functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Body Size / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Fishes* / anatomy & histology
  • Fishes* / metabolism
  • Fishes* / physiology
  • Hypoxia / metabolism
  • Hypoxia / veterinary*
  • Oxygen / metabolism


  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • Oxygen