Broad-scale ecological implications of ectothermy and endothermy in changing environments


Lauren B. Buckley, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, USA. E-mail:


Aim  Physiology is emerging as a basis for understanding the distribution and diversity of organisms, and ultimately for predicting their responses to climate change. Here we review how the difference in physiology of terrestrial vertebrate ectotherms (amphibians and reptiles) and endotherms (birds and mammals) is expected to influence broad-scale ecological patterns.

Location  Global terrestrial ecosystems.

Methods  We use data from the literature and modelling to analyse geographic gradients in energy use and thermal limits. We then compare broad-scale ecological patterns for both groups with expectations stemming from these geographic gradients.

Results  The differences in thermal physiology between ectotherms and endotherms result in geographically disparate macrophysiological constraints. Field metabolic rate (FMR) is stable or decreases slightly with temperature for endotherms, while it generally increases for ectotherms, leading to opposing latitudinal gradients of expected FMR. Potential activity time is a greater constraint on the distributions of ectotherms than endotherms, particularly at high latitudes. Differences in the primary correlates of abundance and species richness for two representative taxonomic groups are consistent with the consequences of these basic physiological differences. Ectotherm richness is better predicted by temperature, whereas endotherm richness is more strongly associated with primary productivity. Finally, in contrast to endotherms, ectotherm richness is not strongly related to abundance.

Main conclusions  Differences in thermal physiology affect how organisms interact with and are constrained by their environment, and may ultimately explain differences in the geographic pattern of biodiversity for endotherms and ectotherms. Linking the fields of physiological and broad-scale ecology should yield a more mechanistic understanding of how biodiversity will respond to environmental change.