Thermal adaptation revisited: How conserved are thermal traits of reptiles and amphibians?

J Exp Zool A Ecol Integr Physiol. 2021 Jan;335(1):173-194. doi: 10.1002/jez.2414. Epub 2020 Sep 24.


Ectothermic animals, such as amphibians and reptiles, are particularly sensitive to rapidly warming global temperatures. One response in these organisms may be to evolve aspects of their thermal physiology. If this response is adaptive and can occur on the appropriate time scale, it may facilitate population or species persistence in the changed environments. However, thermal physiological traits have classically been thought to evolve too slowly to keep pace with environmental change in longer-lived vertebrates. Even as empirical work of the mid-20th century offers mixed support for conservatism in thermal physiological traits, the generalization of low evolutionary potential in thermal traits is commonly invoked. Here, we revisit this hypothesis to better understand the mechanisms guiding the timing and patterns of physiological evolution. Characterizing the potential interactions among evolution, plasticity, behavior, and ontogenetic shifts in thermal physiology is critical for accurate prediction of how organisms will respond to our rapidly warming world. Recent work provides evidence that thermal physiological traits are not as evolutionarily rigid as once believed, with many examples of divergence in several aspects of thermal physiology at multiple phylogenetic scales. However, slow rates of evolution are often still observed, particularly at the warm end of the thermal performance curve. Furthermore, the context-specificity of many responses makes broad generalizations about the potential evolvability of traits tenuous. We outline potential factors and considerations that require closer scrutiny to understand and predict reptile and amphibian evolutionary responses to climate change, particularly regarding the underlying genetic architecture facilitating or limiting thermal evolution.

Keywords: amphibians; climate change; conservatism; evolution; plasticity; reptiles; thermal physiology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Amphibians / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Reptiles / physiology*