In this review we consider how small-scale temporal and spatial variation in body temperature, and biochemical/physiological variation among individuals, affect the prediction of organisms' performance in nature. For 'normal' body temperatures - benign temperatures near the species' mean - thermal biology traditionally uses performance curves to describe how physiological capabilities vary with temperature. However, these curves, which are typically measured under static laboratory conditions, can yield incomplete or inaccurate predictions of how organisms respond to natural patterns of temperature variation. For example, scale transition theory predicts that, in a variable environment, peak average performance is lower and occurs at a lower mean temperature than the peak of statically measured performance. We also demonstrate that temporal variation in performance is minimized near this new 'optimal' temperature. These factors add complexity to predictions of the consequences of climate change. We then move beyond the performance curve approach to consider the effects of rare, extreme temperatures. A statistical procedure (the environmental bootstrap) allows for long-term simulations that capture the temporal pattern of extremes (a Poisson interval distribution), which is characterized by clusters of events interspersed with long intervals of benign conditions. The bootstrap can be combined with biophysical models to incorporate temporal, spatial and physiological variation into evolutionary models of thermal tolerance. We conclude with several challenges that must be overcome to more fully develop our understanding of thermal performance in the context of a changing climate by explicitly considering different forms of small-scale variation. These challenges highlight the need to empirically and rigorously test existing theories.
Keywords: Environmental bootstrap; Extreme events; Jensen's inequality; Scale transition theory; Spatial variation; Thermal biology; Thermal performance curve.
© 2015. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.