Global variation in thermal tolerances and vulnerability of endotherms to climate change

Imran Khaliq, Christian Hof, Roland Prinzinger, Katrin Böhning-Gaese, Markus Pfenninger


The relationships among species' physiological capacities and the geographical variation of ambient climate are of key importance to understanding the distribution of life on the Earth. Furthermore, predictions of how species will respond to climate change will profit from the explicit consideration of their physiological tolerances. The climatic variability hypothesis, which predicts that climatic tolerances are broader in more variable climates, provides an analytical framework for studying these relationships between physiology and biogeography. However, direct empirical support for the hypothesis is mostly lacking for endotherms, and few studies have tried to integrate physiological data into assessments of species' climatic vulnerability at the global scale. Here, we test the climatic variability hypothesis for endotherms, with a comprehensive dataset on thermal tolerances derived from physiological experiments, and use these data to assess the vulnerability of species to projected climate change. We find the expected relationship between thermal tolerance and ambient climatic variability in birds, but not in mammals—a contrast possibly resulting from different adaptation strategies to ambient climate via behaviour, morphology or physiology. We show that currently most of the species are experiencing ambient temperatures well within their tolerance limits and that in the future many species may be able to tolerate projected temperature increases across significant proportions of their distributions. However, our findings also underline the high vulnerability of tropical regions to changes in temperature and other threats of anthropogenic global changes. Our study demonstrates that a better understanding of the interplay among species' physiology and the geography of climate change will advance assessments of species' vulnerability to climate change.

  • Received May 6, 2014.
  • Accepted June 10, 2014.
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