Global metabolic impacts of recent climate warming

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Documented shifts in geographical ranges1, 2, seasonal phenology3, 4, community interactions5, genetics3, 6 and extinctions7 have been attributed to recent global warming8, 9, 10. Many such biotic shifts have been detected at mid- to high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere4, 9, 10—a latitudinal pattern that is expected4, 8, 10, 11 because warming is fastest in these regions8. In contrast, shifts in tropical regions are expected to be less marked4, 8, 10, 11 because warming is less pronounced there8. However, biotic impacts of warming are mediated through physiology, and metabolic rate, which is a fundamental measure of physiological activity and ecological impact, increases exponentially rather than linearly with temperature in ectotherms12. Therefore, tropical ectotherms (with warm baseline temperatures) should experience larger absolute shifts in metabolic rate than the magnitude of tropical temperature change itself would suggest, but the impact of climate warming on metabolic rate has never been quantified on a global scale. Here we show that estimated changes in terrestrial metabolic rates in the tropics are large, are equivalent in magnitude to those in the north temperate-zone regions, and are in fact far greater than those in the Arctic, even though tropical temperature change has been relatively small. Because of temperature’s nonlinear effects on metabolism, tropical organisms, which constitute much of Earth’s biodiversity, should be profoundly affected by recent and projected climate warming2, 13, 14.

At a glance


  1. Global changes in temperature and in metabolic rates since 1980.
    Figure 1: Global changes in temperature and in metabolic rates since 1980.

    a, Changes in mean temperature (5-year averages) for Arctic (n = 100 grid cells), north temperate (n = 356), south temperate (n = 51) and tropical (n = 169) regions. b, Predicted absolute changes in mass-normalized metabolic rates by geographical region. c, Predicted relative changes in mass-normalized metabolic rates. Both temperature and metabolic rate are expressed as differences from the standard reference period (1961–1990), calculated on a per-station basis, on the basis of E and b0 for an average ectotherm (Supplementary Table 1). Data points are means±s.e.m. of area-corrected, gridded weather-station data (Methods).

  2. Predicted changes in metabolic rates of diverse terrestrial ectotherms.
    Figure 2: Predicted changes in metabolic rates of diverse terrestrial ectotherms.

    a, Difference in temperature between 1961–1990 and 2005–2009, with scale bar shown on right. be, Difference in mass-normalized metabolic rates (predicted) for the same period for four terrestrial ectothermic animal taxa for which empirical estimates of E and b0 are available (Supplementary Table 1)12. Colour bar to right of b indicates scale for be. Grey shading indicates grid cells with no temperature data.


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Author information


  1. Department of Zoology and Physiology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071, USA

    • Michael E. Dillon
  2. Department of Biology, Box 351800, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • George Wang &
    • Raymond B. Huey
  3. Present address: Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen 72076, Germany.

    • George Wang


M.E.D., G.W. and R.B.H. conceived the project, designed the analyses and wrote the paper; M.E.D. and G.W. collated weather station data and did temperature and metabolic rate calculations.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

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  1. Supplementary Information (422K)

    The file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary Figures 1-5 with legends.


  1. Report this comment #14929

    michele leone said:

    In this Letter, the authors claim that "In the context of climate warming, [the basic equation (1) regulating the dependence of ectotherms metabolic rates on temperature] predicts that metabolism will shift more in response to a unit change in temperature at high temperature than at low temperature".
    I simply do not understand this point, unless another dependency on T is hidden, as the y=Exp[-1/T] function has an horizontal y=1 asymptote and a derivative decreasing with T.

    Thank you very much,
    Michele Leone – International Development Research Centre

  2. Report this comment #15668

    james waters said:

    For y~e^(-1/T), the second derivative is positive in (0, 0.5) and negative thereafter. So the derivative is increasing within that first range, which is likely the range in which that term lies if meaningful values are substituted. In that range, since the derivative at higher relative T is greater than the derivative at lower relative T, then you should expect the predictions by Dillon et al. with respect to metabolic rate sensitivity.

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