In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thermal Ecology of Animals

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Thermal Heterogeneity
  • Thermal Effects on Populations Dynamics
  • Thermal Effects on Biodiversity

Ecology Thermal Ecology of Animals
Michael J. Angilletta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0173


Thermal energy—from solar radiation and geochemical reactions—sets the pace of biological systems, whether they be organisms, populations, or communities. Some of the earliest experiments in ecology addressed questions related to thermal ecology, probably because temperature varies characteristically over space and time and has such clear effects on the metabolism of organisms. Decades of empirical research have led to a mathematical theory of thermal ecology that covers a wide range of topics: (1) how certain temperatures promote the activity and growth of organisms, (2) how populations adapt to thermal variation, (3) how extreme temperatures limit the distributions of species, (4) how interactions between species shape thermal niches, and (5) how latitudinal clines in temperature create patterns of biodiversity. By connecting models at different levels of biological organization, the theory of thermal ecology enables one to scale from organisms to the biosphere. This synthetic theory stems from laws of thermodynamics, which apply to every chemical system, organic or inorganic, miniscule or massive.

General Overviews

To understand the development of concepts and ideas within thermal ecology, one should consult several syntheses. The book Cossins and Bowler 1987 covers the effects of temperature on the performance of organisms. The edited volume Johnston and Bennett 2008 offers a more recent review of this topic, while adding perspectives on the adaptation of populations to changing temperatures. Angilletta 2009 provides the most recent synthesis of thermal ecology, with greater emphasis on evolutionary ecology, including selective pressures created by species interactions and anthropogenic warming. Brown, et al. 2004 reviews an ambitious and influential set of models linking thermal physiology to life history and population growth. In addition, the Journal of Thermal Biology routinely publishes papers about thermal ecology.

  • Angilletta, M. J. 2009. Thermal adaptation: A theoretical and empirical synthesis. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198570875.001.1

    Reviews ecological and evolutionary aspects of thermal biology; chapters cover thermal heterogeneity, thermoregulation, acclimation, life-history evolution, coevolution of species, and the impacts of global warming.

  • Brown, J. H., J. F. Gillooly, A. P. Allen, Van M. Savage, and G. B. West. 2004. Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:1771–1789.

    A sweeping review of an influential theory that scales from organisms to populations based on the thermal sensitivity of metabolism.

  • Cossins, A. R., and K. B. Bowler. 1987. Temperature biology of animals. New York: Chapman and Hall.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-3127-5

    Chapters cover thermoregulation and thermal effects on metabolism and development.

  • Johnston, I. A., and A. F. Bennett, eds. 2008. Animals and temperature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An edited volume with contributions from major thinkers in thermal ecology. Chapters cover thermal effects on performance and life history, torpor by endotherms, acclimation and adaptation to thermal variation.

  • Journal of Thermal Biology. 1975–.

    Publishes original articles in all areas of thermal biology, including ecology. Full articles are available online.

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