Thermal biases and vulnerability to warming in the world’s marine fauna


A critical assumption underlying projections of biodiversity change associated with global warming is that ecological communities comprise balanced mixes of warm-affinity and cool-affinity species which, on average, approximate local environmental temperatures. Nevertheless, here we find that most shallow water marine species occupy broad thermal distributions that are aggregated in either temperate or tropical realms. These distributional trends result in ocean-scale spatial thermal biases, where communities are dominated by species with warmer or cooler affinity than local environmental temperatures. We use community-level thermal deviations from local temperatures as a form of sensitivity to warming, and combine these with projected ocean warming data to predict warming-related loss of species from present-day communities over the next century. Large changes in local species composition appear likely, and proximity to thermal limits, as inferred from present-day species’ distributional ranges, outweighs spatial variation in warming rates in contributing to predicted rates of local species loss.

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Figure 1: Global community temperature index values for reef fishes and invertebrates against mean annual sea surface temperature.
Figure 2: Frequency distributions of fish and invertebrate species according to their thermal distribution midpoint show modes of temperature affinity or tropical (red), temperate (blue) and subpolar (white) thermal guilds.
Figure 3: Vulnerability of marine communities to warming-related local species loss.


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We thank the many Reef Life Survey (RLS) divers who participated in data collection and provide ongoing expertise and commitment to the program, University of Tasmania staff including J. Berkhout, A. Cooper, M. Davey, J. Hulls, E. Oh, J. Stuart-Smith and R. Thomson. Development of RLS was supported by the former Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program, and analyses were supported by the Australian Research Council, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, and the Marine Biodiversity Hub, a collaborative partnership supported through the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme. Additional funding and support for field surveys was provided by grants from the Ian Potter Foundation, CoastWest, National Geographic Society, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia, The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Australian-American Fulbright Commission, and ASSEMBLE Marine.

Author information




R.D.S.-S., A.E.B. and G.J.E. conceived the idea, G.J.E., R.D.S.-S. and many others collected the data. R.D.S.-S. drafted the paper, with substantial input from A.E.B., G.J.E., N.S.B. and S.J.K. S.J.K. prepared the maps, A.E.B. and R.D.S.-S. analysed the data and prepared figures.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rick D. Stuart-Smith.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

A ‘live’ (periodically updated) database containing the Reef Life Survey ecological data used in this study is accessible online through

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Sites used in analyses at which fish and invertebrate communities were surveyed by the Reef Life Survey program.

Numerous points are overlapping and hidden (n = 2,447). Ecoregion boundaries are shown in grey lines.

Extended Data Figure 2 Community temperature index values for reef fishes and invertebrates against mean annual sea surface temperature.

ad, CTI calculated using abundance-weighted fish (a) and invertebrate (b) data, and including sites at which mean CTI confidence scores were less than 2.5 (n = 2,447 and 2,383 for fishes and invertebrates, respectively). Sites are colour-coded by ecoregion to help distinguish spatial patterns, but as a result of numerous ecoregions (n = 81), many ecoregion colours are similar. CTI calculated using presence-only fish (c) and invertebrate (d) data, and excluding sites with confidence scores <2.5 (n = 2,188 and 1,812 for fishes and invertebrates, respectively). Dotted lines have a slope of one, plotted for comparison with data.

Extended Data Figure 3 Global distribution of reef fish and invertebrate community thermal bias.

a, b, Community thermal bias (°C) is the difference in abundance-weighted CTI from local long-term mean annual sea surface temperature. Positive regions (warm colours) encompass ecological communities with a predominance of individuals with warmer thermal affinity than mean local sea temperatures. Colours are scaled to the mean thermal bias of sites surveyed within each ecoregion (see Extended Data Table 1 for sample sizes). Only ecoregions with sites that were surveyed are included.

Extended Data Figure 4 Frequency distribution of fish and invertebrate species’ latitudinal range midpoints.

a, b, Species for which confidence in thermal distribution midpoints (and therefore geographical distribution midpoints) was low are excluded (see Methods).

Extended Data Figure 5 Frequency distribution of fish (left) and invertebrate (right) species’ thermal distribution midpoints in 10° latitudinal bands from Papua New Guinea and down eastern Australia (rows).

aj, Note y axes are on different scales and only species with confidence scores of two and three are included (see Methods).

Extended Data Figure 6 Frequency distribution of thermal distribution midpoints of species in major fish families spanning temperate and tropical zones.

Note y axes are on different scales and only species with confidence scores of two and three are included.

Extended Data Figure 7 Global distribution of TBiasmax of reef faunal communities.

TBiasmax is calculated as the difference between CTImax (using the 95th percentiles of species’ thermal distributions and presence data) and mean summer SST. Colours are scaled to the mean TBiasmax of sites surveyed within each ecoregion (see Extended Data Table 1 for sample sizes). Only ecoregions in which quantitative surveys were undertaken are included.

Extended Data Figure 8 The CTImax (mean 95th percentile of species thermal distributions) for reef faunal communities across temperate (blue), tropical (red) and subtropical (grey) sites.

SST data are means of the warmest 8 weeks of the year over the survey period (2008–2014). Points represent the surveyed community of fishes and invertebrates at each site (n = 2,091, only confidence scores >2.5). Regression lines are fitted to the maximum values within each ecoregion, with separate regressions fitted for sites categorised from Fig. 1 as temperate, tropical and subtropical.

Extended Data Table 1 Ecoregion means, sample sizes and vulnerability predictions
Extended Data Table 2 GAMM results

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Stuart-Smith, R., Edgar, G., Barrett, N. et al. Thermal biases and vulnerability to warming in the world’s marine fauna. Nature 528, 88–92 (2015).

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