Climate change is currently one of the main driving forces behind changes in species distributions, and understanding the mechanisms that underpin macroecological patterns is necessary for a more predictive science. Warming sea water temperatures are expected to drive changes in ectothermic marine species ranges due to their thermal tolerance levels. Here, we develop a mechanistic tool to predict size- and season-specific distributions based on the physiology of the species and the temperature and food conditions in the sea. The effects of climate conditions on physiological-based habitat utilization was then examined for different size-classes of two commercially important fish species in the North Sea, plaice, Pleuronectes platessa, and sole, Solea solea. The two species provide an attractive comparison as they differ in their physiology (e.g. preferred temperature range). Combining dynamic energy budget (DEB) models with the temperature and food conditions estimated by an ecosystem model (ERSEM), allowed spatial differences in potential growth (as a proxy for habitat quality) to be estimated for 2 years with contrasting temperature and food conditions. The resulting habitat quality maps were in broad agreement with observed ontogenetic and seasonal changes in distribution as well as with the recent changes in distribution which could be attributed to an increase in coastal temperatures. Our physiological-based model provides a powerful tool to explore the effect of climate change on the spatio-temporal fish dynamics, predict effects of local or broad-scale environmental changes and provide a physiological basis for observed changes in species distributions.
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