Behavioural effects of temperature on ectothermic animals: unifying thermal physiology and behavioural plasticity

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2017 Nov;92(4):1859-1876. doi: 10.1111/brv.12312. Epub 2016 Nov 7.


Temperature imposes significant constraints on ectothermic animals, and these organisms have evolved numerous adaptations to respond to these constraints. While the impacts of temperature on the physiology of ectotherms have been extensively studied, there are currently no frameworks available that outline the multiple and often simultaneous pathways by which temperature can affect behaviour. Drawing from the literature on insects, we propose a unified framework that should apply to all ectothermic animals, generalizing temperature's behavioural effects into: (1) kinetic effects, resulting from temperature's bottom-up constraining influence on metabolism and neurophysiology over a range of timescales (from short to long term), and (2) integrated effects, where the top-down integration of thermal information intentionally initiates or modifies a behaviour (behavioural thermoregulation, thermal orientation, thermosensory behavioural adjustments). We discuss the difficulty in distinguishing adaptive behavioural changes from constraints when observing animals' behavioural responses to temperature. We then propose two complementary approaches to distinguish adaptations from constraints, and categorize behaviours according to our framework: (i) 'kinetic null modelling' of temperature's effects on behaviour; and (ii) behavioural ecology experiments using temperature-insensitive mutants. Our framework should help to guide future research on the complex relationship between temperature and behaviour in ectothermic animals.

Keywords: behavioural ecology; insects; metabolic theory of ecology; physiological constraints; thermal biology; thermal orientation; thermoregulation; thermosensation.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Temperature*