Degrees of disruption: projected temperature increase has catastrophic consequences for reproduction in a tropical ectotherm


Correspondence: Jeanne A. Zeh, tel. + 1 775 784 1648, fax + 1 775 784 1302, e-mail:


Although climate change models predict relatively modest increases in temperature in the tropics by the end of the century, recent analyses identify tropical ectotherms as the organisms most at risk from climate warming. Because metabolic rate in ectotherms increases exponentially with temperature, even a small rise in temperature poses a physiological threat to tropical ectotherms inhabiting an already hot environment. If correct, the metabolic theory of climate warming has profound implications for global biodiversity, since tropical insects and arachnids constitute the vast majority of animal species. Predicting how climate change will translate into fitness consequences for tropical arthropods requires an understanding of the effects of temperature increase on the entire life history of the species. Here, in a comprehensive case study of the fitness consequences of the projected temperature increase for the tropics, we conducted a split-brood experiment on the neotropical pseudoscorpion, Cordylochernes scorpioides, in which 792 offspring from 33 females were randomly assigned at birth to control- and high-temperature treatments for rearing through the adult stage. The diurnally varying, control treatment temperature was determined from long-term, average daily temperature minima and maxima in the pseudoscorpion's native habitat. In the high temperature treatment, increasing temperature by the 3.5 °C predicted for the tropics significantly reduced survival and accelerated development at the cost of reduced adult size and a dramatic decrease in level of sexual dimorphism. The most striking effects, however, involved reproductive traits. Reared at high temperature, males produced 45% as many sperm as control males, and females failed to reproduce. Sequencing of the mitochondrial ND2 gene revealed two highly divergent haplogroups that differed substantially in developmental rate and survivorship but not in reproductive response to high temperature. Our findings suggest that reproduction may be the Achilles’ heel of tropical ectotherms, as climate warming subjects them to an increasingly adverse thermal environment.