The well-temperatured biologist. (American Society of Naturalists Presidential Address)

Am Nat. 2009 Dec;174(6):755-68. doi: 10.1086/648310.


Temperature provides a powerful theme for exploring environmental adaptation at all levels of biological organization, from molecular kinetics to organismal fitness to global biogeography. First, the thermodynamic properties that underlie biochemical kinetics and protein stability determine the overall thermal sensitivity of rate processes. Consequently, a single quantitative framework can assess variation in thermal sensitivity of ectotherms in terms of single amino acid substitutions, quantitative genetics, and interspecific differences. Thermodynamic considerations predict that higher optimal temperatures will result in greater maximal fitness at the optimum, a pattern seen both in interspecific comparisons and in within-population genotypic variation. Second, the temperature-size rule (increased developmental temperature causes decreased adult body size) is a common pattern of phenotypic plasticity in ectotherms. Mechanistic models can correctly predict the rule in some taxa, but lab and field studies show that rapid evolution can weaken or even break the rule. Third, phenotypic and evolutionary models for thermal sensitivity can be combined to explore potential fitness consequences of climate warming for terrestrial ectotherms. Recent analyses suggest that climate change will have greater negative fitness consequences for tropical than for temperate ectotherms, because many tropical species have relatively narrow thermal breadths and smaller thermal safety margins.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Size
  • Climate Change
  • Environment
  • Extinction, Biological
  • Kinetics
  • Temperature*
  • Thermodynamics