1. The geographical range sizes of individual species vary considerably in extent, although the factors underlying this variation remain poorly understood, and could include a number of ecological and evolutionary processes. A favoured explanation for range size variation is that this result from differences in fundamental niche breadths, suggesting a key role for physiology in determining range size, although to date empirical tests of these ideas remain limited.
2. Here we explore relationships between thermal physiology and biogeography, whilst controlling for possible differences in dispersal ability and phylogenetic relatedness, across 14 ecologically similar congeners which differ in geographical range extent; European diving beetles of the genus Deronectes Sharp (Coleoptera, Dytiscidae). Absolute upper and lower temperature tolerance and acclimatory abilities are determined for populations of each species, following acclimation in the laboratory.
3. Absolute thermal tolerance range is the best predictor of both species’ latitudinal range extent and position, differences in dispersal ability (based on wing size) apparently being less important in this group. In addition, species’ northern and southern range limits are related to their tolerance of low and high temperatures respectively. In all cases, absolute temperature tolerances, rather than acclimatory abilities are the best predictors of range parameters, whilst the use of independent contrasts suggested that species’ thermal acclimation abilities may also relate to biogeography, although increased acclimatory ability does not appear to be associated with increased range size.
4. Our study is the first to provide empirical support for a relationship between thermal physiology and range size variation in widespread and restricted species, conducted using the same experimental design, within a phylogenetically and ecologically controlled framework.