Climate variations and the physiological basis of temperature dependent biogeography: systemic to molecular hierarchy of thermal tolerance in animals

Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2002 Aug;132(4):739-61. doi: 10.1016/s1095-6433(02)00045-4.


The physiological mechanisms limiting and adjusting cold and heat tolerance have regained interest in the light of global warming and associated shifts in the geographical distribution of ectothermic animals. Recent comparative studies, largely carried out on marine ectotherms, indicate that the processes and limits of thermal tolerance are linked with the adjustment of aerobic scope and capacity of the whole animal as a crucial step in thermal adaptation on top of parallel adjustments at the molecular or membrane level. In accordance with Shelford's law of tolerance decreasing whole animal aerobic scope characterises the onset of thermal limitation at low and high pejus thresholds (pejus=getting worse). The drop in aerobic scope of an animal indicated by falling oxygen levels in the body fluids and or the progressively limited capacity of circulatory and ventilatory mechanisms. At high temperatures, excessive oxygen demand causes insufficient oxygen levels in the body fluids, whereas at low temperatures the aerobic capacity of mitochondria may become limiting for ventilation and circulation. Further cooling or warming beyond these limits leads to low or high critical threshold temperatures (T(c)) where aerobic scope disappears and transition to an anaerobic mode of mitochondrial metabolism and progressive insufficiency of cellular energy levels occurs. The adjustments of mitochondrial densities and their functional properties appear as a critical process in defining and shifting thermal tolerance windows. The finding of an oxygen limited thermal tolerance owing to loss of aerobic scope is in line with Taylor's and Weibel's concept of symmorphosis, which implies that excess capacity of any component of the oxygen delivery system is avoided. The present study suggests that the capacity of oxygen delivery is set to a level just sufficient to meet maximum oxygen demand between the average highs and lows of environmental temperatures. At more extreme temperatures only time limited passive survival is supported by anaerobic metabolism or the protection of molecular functions by heat shock proteins and antioxidative defence. As a corollary, the first line of thermal sensitivity is due to capacity limitations at a high level of organisational complexity, i.e. the integrated function of the oxygen delivery system, before individual, molecular or membrane functions become disturbed. These interpretations are in line with the more general consideration that, as a result of the high level of complexity of metazoan organisms compared with simple eukaryotes and then prokaryotes, thermal tolerance is reduced in metazoans. A similar sequence of sensitivities prevails within the metazoan organism, with the highest sensitivity at the organismic level and wider tolerance windows at lower levels of complexity. However, the situation is different in that loss in aerobic scope and progressive hypoxia at the organismic level define the onset of thermal limitation which then transfers to lower hierarchical levels and causes cellular and molecular disturbances. Oxygen limitation contributes to oxidative stress and, finally, denaturation or malfunction of molecular repair, e.g. during suspension of protein synthesis. The sequence of thermal tolerance limits turns into a hierarchy, ranging from systemic to cellular to molecular levels.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Aerobiosis
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Climate
  • Cold Climate
  • Marine Biology
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Oxygen / physiology
  • Respiratory Physiological Phenomena


  • Oxygen