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Thermal limits to the geographic distributions of shallow-water marine species


Temperature profoundly affects species’ geographic ranges, but the extent to which it limits contemporary range edges has been difficult to assess from laboratory experiments of thermal tolerance. The persistence of populations depends on temperature-mediated outcomes of ecological and demographic processes across all stages of a species’ life history, as well as any adaptation to local temperature regimes. We assessed the relationships between sea temperature and observed distributional ranges for 1,790 shallow-water marine species from 10 animal classes and found remarkable consistencies in trends in realized thermal limits among taxa and ocean basins, as well as general agreement with previous laboratory findings. Realized thermal niches increase from the Equator towards cold–temperate locations, despite an opposite trend in geographic range size. Species’ cool distribution limits are best predicted by the magnitude of seasonality within their range, while a relatively firm thermal barrier exists on the equatorward range edge for temperate species. Our findings of consistencies in realized thermal limits indicate potential limits to adaptation among common marine species and highlight the value of realized thermal niches for predicting species’ distributional dynamics in warming seas.

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Fig. 1: Realized thermal niches as a result of latitude and sea temperature gradients.
Fig. 2: Overall geographic, longitudinal and latitudinal range extents.


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We thank the many RLS divers who participated in collection of the data used in the analyses and who provide ongoing expertise and commitment to the program, as well as A. Cooper, J. Berkhout, M. Davey, J. Hulls, E. Oh, E. Clausius and J. Stuart-Smith at the University of Tasmania. Development of the RLS was supported by the former Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program. Analyses were supported by the Marine Biodiversity Hub—a collaborative partnership supported through the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme—and the Australian Research Council. Additional funding and support for RLS field surveys was provided by grants from The Ian Potter Foundation and Parks Australia.

Author information




R.D.S.-S. and A.E.B. conceived the idea. G.J.E. and R.D.S.-S. assisted with data collection. R.D.S.-S. drafted the manuscript with contributions from A.E.B. and G.J.E. A.E.B. performed the data analysis and prepared the plots.

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Correspondence to Rick D. Stuart-Smith.

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Supplementary Tables 1–9, Supplementary Figures 1–3

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Stuart-Smith, R.D., Edgar, G.J. & Bates, A.E. Thermal limits to the geographic distributions of shallow-water marine species. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1846–1852 (2017).

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