Insect responses to heat: physiological mechanisms, evolution and ecological implications in a warming world

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2020 Jun;95(3):802-821. doi: 10.1111/brv.12588. Epub 2020 Feb 8.


Surviving changing climate conditions is particularly difficult for organisms such as insects that depend on environmental temperature to regulate their physiological functions. Insects are extremely threatened by global warming, since many do not have enough physiological tolerance even to survive continuous exposure to the current maximum temperatures experienced in their habitats. Here, we review literature on the physiological mechanisms that regulate responses to heat and provide heat tolerance in insects: (i) neuronal mechanisms to detect and respond to heat; (ii) metabolic responses to heat; (iii) thermoregulation; (iv) stress responses to tolerate heat; and (v) hormones that coordinate developmental and behavioural responses at warm temperatures. Our review shows that, apart from the stress response mediated by heat shock proteins, the physiological mechanisms of heat tolerance in insects remain poorly studied. Based on life-history theory, we discuss the costs of heat tolerance and the potential evolutionary mechanisms driving insect adaptations to high temperatures. Some insects may deal with ongoing global warming by the joint action of phenotypic plasticity and genetic adaptation. Plastic responses are limited and may not be by themselves enough to withstand ongoing warming trends. Although the evidence is still scarce and deserves further research in different insect taxa, genetic adaptation to high temperatures may result from rapid evolution. Finally, we emphasize the importance of incorporating physiological information for modelling species distributions and ecological interactions under global warming scenarios. This review identifies several open questions to improve our understanding of how insects respond physiologically to heat and the evolutionary and ecological consequences of those responses. Further lines of research are suggested at the species, order and class levels, with experimental and analytical approaches such as artificial selection, quantitative genetics and comparative analyses.

Keywords: acclimation; adaptation; climate change; distribution; ecological interactions; extreme temperatures; heat tolerance; physiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Size
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology
  • Global Warming
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / metabolism
  • Hot Temperature*
  • Insecta / anatomy & histology
  • Insecta / classification
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology
  • Thermoreceptors / physiology
  • Thermotolerance / physiology*


  • Heat-Shock Proteins