What we know we don’t know about animal tolerances to high temperatures

30 01 2023

Each organism has a limit of tolerance to cold and hot temperatures. So, the closer it lives to those limits, the higher the chances of experiencing thermal stress and potentially dying. In our recent paper, we revise gaps in the knowledge of tolerance to high temperatures in cold-blooded animals (ectotherms), a diverse group mostly including amphibians and reptiles (> 16,000 species), fish (> 34,000 species), and invertebrates (> 1,200,000 species).

As a scientist, little is more self-realising than to write and publish a conceptual paper that frames the findings of your own previous applied-research papers. This is the case with an opinion piece we have just published in Basic and Applied Ecology1 — 10 years, 4 research papers2-5 [see related blog posts here, here, here and here], and 1 popular-science article6 after I joined the Department of Biogeography and Global Change (Spanish National Research Council) to study the thermal physiology of Iberian lizards under the supervision of Miguel Araújo and David Vieites.

Iberian lizards for which heat tolerance is known (varying from 40 to 45 °C)
[left, top to bottom] Iberian emerald lizard (Lacerta schreiberi, from Alameda del Valle/Madrid) and Geniez’s wall lizard (Podarcis virescens, Fuertescusa/Cuenca), and [right, top to bottom] Algerian sand racer (Psammodromus algirus, Navacerrada/Madrid), Andalusian wall lizard (Podarcis vaucheri, La Barrosa/Cádiz), Valverde’s lizard (Algyroides marchi, Riópar/Albacete), and Cyren’s rock lizard (Iberolacerta cyreni, Valdesquí/Madrid). Heat-tolerance data deposited here and used to evaluate instraspecific variation of heat tolerance3,4. Photos: Salvador Herrando-Pérez.

In our new paper, we examine how much we know and what areas of research require further development to advance our understanding of how and why the tolerance of ectotherm fauna to high environmental temperature (‘heat tolerance’ hereafter) varies within and across the Earth’s biomes. We focus on data gaps using the global database GlobTherm as a reference template (see Box 1 below).

Our three main tenets

1. Population versus species data: Most large-scale ecophysiological research is based on modelling one measurement of heat tolerance per species (typically representing one population and/or physiological assay) over hundreds to thousands of species covering broad geographical, phylogenetic, and climatic gradients.

But there is ample evidence that heat tolerance changes a lot among populations occupying different areas of the distribution of a species, and such variation must be taken into account to improve our predictions of how species might respond to environmental change and face extinction.

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Many animals won’t cope with climate change without access to ample drinking water

12 08 2020

Climate change implies change in temperature and water, and both factors shape species’ tolerances to thermal stress. In our latest article, we show that lack of drinking water maximises differences in tolerance to high temperatures among populations of Iberian lizard species.


Climate change is a multidimensional phenomenon comprising temporal and spatial shifts in both temperature and precipitation (1). How we perceive climate change depends on whether we measure it as shift in (i) mean conditions (e.g., the mean air temperature or rainfall over a decade within a given territory), (ii) magnitude or frequency of extreme conditions (e.g., the frequency of floods or tornados or the number of days with temperatures or rainfall above or below a given threshold), or (iii) speed at which mean or extreme conditions change in space and/or time.

In aquatic ecosystems, climate change further alters water acidity, oxygen dissolution and melting of ice. However, many people, including some scientists, tend to equate climate change erroneously with increased mean temperatures. Psychologists have made the semantic point that the use of the expressions climate change and global warming as synonyms can give mixed messages to politicians, and society in general, about how serious and complex the climate emergency we are facing really is (2, 3) — see NASA’s simple-worded account on the subject here.

In our latest article (4), we reviewed the ecological literature to determine to what extent ecologists investigating the tolerance of terrestrial animals to high temperatures have looked at thermal effects over water effects. It turns out, they were five times more likely to examine temperature over water.


Frequency of correlations between climate (air temperature versus precipitation) and tolerance to high temperature of terrestrial fauna in 64 papers published in the ecological literature (thickest link = 36, thinnest link = 2) following a systematic literature review in Scopus (4).

This is counterintuitive. Just imagine you have been walking under the sun for several hours on one of those dog days of summer, and you are offered to choose between a sunshade or a bottle of water. I’d bet you’d choose the bottle of water.

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