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Physiological plasticity increases resilience of ectothermic animals to climate change



Understanding how climate change affects natural populations remains one of the greatest challenges for ecology and management of natural resources. Animals can remodel their physiology to compensate for the effects of temperature variation, and this physiological plasticity, or acclimation, can confer resilience to climate change1,2. The current lack of a comprehensive analysis of the capacity for physiological plasticity across taxonomic groups and geographic regions, however, constrains predictions of the impacts of climate change. Here, we assembled the largest database to date to establish the current state of knowledge of physiological plasticity in ectothermic animals. We show that acclimation decreases the sensitivity to temperature and climate change of freshwater and marine animals, but less so in terrestrial animals. Animals from more stable environments have greater capacity for acclimation, and there is a significant trend showing that the capacity for thermal acclimation increases with decreasing latitude. Despite the capacity for acclimation, climate change over the past 20 years has already resulted in increased physiological rates of up to 20%, and we predict further future increases under climate change. The generality of these predictions is limited, however, because much of the world is drastically undersampled in the literature, and these undersampled regions are the areas of greatest need for future research efforts.

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Figure 1: Generalized thermal responses of physiological rates to a temperature change.
Figure 2: The state of knowledge of the effect of thermal acclimation on physiological rates.
Figure 3: Thermal sensitivity of different taxa reported in the literature.
Figure 4: Spatially explicit prediction of the effect of projected future climate change on metabolic rates.


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We thank R. B. Huey for comments on a draft of this manuscript and D. Ortiz-Barrientos for advice. C.R.W. is supported by fellowships from the Australian Research Council. This research was supported by an ARC Discovery Grant to F.S.

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F.S. and C.E.F. conceived the idea and extracted the data from the literature, C.R.W. conducted the analysis, wrote the manuscript and prepared figures, F.S. wrote the manuscript and prepared figures, and C.E.F. edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Frank Seebacher.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Seebacher, F., White, C. & Franklin, C. Physiological plasticity increases resilience of ectothermic animals to climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 61–66 (2015).

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