A tenet of macroecology is that physiological processes of organisms are linked to large-scale geographical patterns in environmental conditions. Species at higher latitudes experience greater seasonal temperature variation and are consequently predicted to withstand greater temperature extremes. We tested for relationships between breadths of thermal tolerance in ectothermic animals and the latitude of specimen location using all available data, while accounting for habitat, hemisphere, methodological differences and taxonomic affinity. We found that thermal tolerance breadths generally increase with latitude, and do so at a greater rate in the Northern Hemisphere. In terrestrial ectotherms, upper thermal limits vary little while lower thermal limits decrease with latitude. By contrast, marine species display a coherent poleward decrease in both upper and lower thermal limits. Our findings provide comprehensive global support for hypotheses generated from studies at smaller taxonomic subsets and geographical scales. Our results further indicate differences between terrestrial and marine ectotherms in how thermal physiology varies with latitude that may relate to the degree of temperature variability experienced on land and in the ocean.