The subduction and stirring of cold oceanic lithosphere governs the thermal regime of the Earth's mantle. Whether upwelling mantle plumes are transient isoviscous thermals or long-lived low viscosity plumes depends on the magnitude of the resulting temperature variations in the thermal boundary layer at the base of the mantle. Previous laboratory experiments suggest that low viscosity “Earth-like” plumes occur where the hot thermal boundary layer (TBL) viscosity ratio, λh > O(10). Here, the results from two-dimensional numerical simulations, in which subduction is either forced from above or allowed to arise naturally show that: (1) a morphologic transition from upwellings in the form of isoviscous thermals to cavity plumes occurs where λh ≥ O(10) and is accompanied by a qualitative change in the temporal and spatial dynamics of the hot TBL; (2) this transition corresponds to a condition in which the velocity boundary layer (VBL) is concentrated within the basal part of the TBL for no- and free-slip boundaries; and (3) a regime in which λh ≥ O(10) can only occur if the total viscosity ratio across the convecting system, λT ≥ O(102). Our results support a recent conjecture that low viscosity mantle plumes in the Earth are a consequence of strong mantle cooling by plate tectonics. Moreover, Earth-like plume models may be inappropriate for explaining the origin of surface features on one plate planets such as Mars or Venus.