Background: A central premise of physiological ecology is that an animal's preferred body temperature should correspond closely with the temperature maximizing performance and Darwinian fitness. Testing this co-adaptational hypothesis has been problematic for several reasons. First, reproductive fitness is the appropriate measure, but is difficult to measure in most animals. Second, no single fitness measure applies to all demographic situations, complicating interpretations. Here we test the co-adaptation hypothesis by studying an organism (Caenorhabditis elegans) in which both fitness and thermal preference can be reliably measured.
Results: We find that natural isolates of C. elegans display a range of mean thermal preferences and also vary in their thermal sensitivities for fitness. Hot-seeking isolates CB4854 and CB4857 prefer temperatures that favor population growth rate (r), whereas the cold-seeking isolate CB4856 prefers temperatures that favor Lifetime Reproductive Success (LRS).
Conclusions: Correlations between fitness and thermal preference in natural isolates of C. elegans are driven primarily by isolate-specific differences in thermal preference. If these differences are the result of natural selection, then this suggests that the appropriate measure of fitness for use in evolutionary ecology studies might differ even within species, depending on the unique ecological and evolutionary history of each population.