Thermodynamics constrains the evolution of insect population growth rates: "warmer is better"

Am Nat. 2006 Oct;168(4):512-20. doi: 10.1086/506977. Epub 2006 Aug 29.


Diverse biochemical and physiological adaptations enable different species of ectotherms to survive and reproduce in very different temperature regimes, but whether these adaptations fully compensate for the thermodynamically depressing effects of low temperature on rates of biological processes is debated. If such adaptations are fully compensatory, then temperature-dependent processes (e.g., digestion rate, population growth rate) of cold-adapted species will match those of warm-adapted species when each is measured at its own optimal temperature. Here we show that cold-adapted insect species have much lower maximum rates of population growth than do warm-adapted species, even when we control for phylogenetic relatedness. This pattern also holds when we use a structural-equation model to analyze alternative hypotheses that might otherwise explain this correlation. Thus, although physiological adaptations enable some insects to survive and reproduce at low temperatures, these adaptations do not overcome the "tyranny" of thermodynamics, at least for rates of population increase. Indeed, the sensitivity of population growth rates of insects to temperature is even greater than predicted by a recent thermodynamic model. Our findings suggest that adaptation to temperature inevitably alters the population dynamics of insects. This result has broad evolutionary and ecological consequences.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Phylogeny
  • Population Growth
  • Species Specificity
  • Temperature*
  • Thermodynamics