Fine-Scale Microclimatic Variation Can Shape the Responses of Organisms to Global Change in Both Natural and Urban Environments

Integr Comp Biol. 2016 Jul;56(1):45-61. doi: 10.1093/icb/icw016. Epub 2016 Apr 23.


When predicting the response of organisms to global change, models use measures of climate at a coarse resolution from general circulation models or from downscaled regional models. Organisms, however, do not experience climate at such large scales. The climate heterogeneity over a landscape and how much of that landscape an organism can sample will determine ultimately the microclimates experienced by organisms. This past few decades has seen an important increase in the number of studies reporting microclimatic patterns at small scales. This synthesis intends to unify studies reporting microclimatic heterogeneity (mostly temperature) at various spatial scales, to infer any emerging trends, and to discuss the causes and consequences of such heterogeneity for organismal performance and with respect to changing land use patterns and climate. First, we identify the environmental drivers of heterogeneity across the various spatial scales that are pertinent to ectotherms. The thermal heterogeneity at the local and micro-scales is mostly generated by the architecture or the geometrical features of the microhabitat. Then, the thermal heterogeneity experienced by individuals is modulated by behavior. Second, we survey the literature to quantify thermal heterogeneity from the micro-scale up to the scale of a landscape in natural habitats. Despite difficulties in compiling studies that differ much in their design and aims, we found that there is as much thermal heterogeneity across micro-, local and landscape scales, and that the temperature range is large in general (>9 °C on average, and up to 26 °C). Third, we examine the extent to which urban habitats can be used to infer the microclimatic patterns of the future. Urban areas generate globally drier and warmer microclimatic patterns and recent evidence suggest that thermal traits of ectotherms are adapted to them. Fourth, we explore the interplay between microclimate heterogeneity and the behavioral thermoregulatory abilities of ectotherms in setting their overall performance. We used a random walk framework to show that the thermal heterogeneity allows a more precise behavioral thermoregulation and a narrower temperature distribution of the ectotherm compared to less heterogeneous microhabitats. Finally, we discuss the potential impacts of global change on the fine scale mosaics of microclimates. The amplitude of change may differ between spatial scales. In heterogeneous microhabitats, the amplitude of change at micro-scale, caused by atmospheric warming, can be substantial while it can be limited at the local and landscape scales. We suggest that the warming signal will influence species performance and biotic interactions by modulating the mosaic of microclimates.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cities
  • Climate Change*
  • Environment*
  • Invertebrates / physiology
  • Microclimate*
  • Models, Biological
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena
  • Temperature*
  • Vertebrates / physiology