Predicting the physiological performance of ectotherms in fluctuating thermal environments

Amanda C. Niehaus, Michael Angilletta, Michael W. Sears, Craig E. Franklin, Robbie S. Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


Physiological ecologists have long sought to understand the plasticity of organisms in environments that vary widely among years, seasons and even hours. This is now even more important because human-induced climate change is predicted to affect both the mean and variability of the thermal environment. Although environmental change occurs ubiquitously, relatively few researchers have studied the effects of fluctuating environments on the performance of developing organisms. Even fewer have tried to validate a framework for predicting performance in fluctuating environments. Here, we determined whether reaction norms based on performance at constant temperatures (18, 22, 26, 30 and 34°C) could be used to predict embryonic and larval performance of anurans at fluctuating temperatures (18-28°C and 18-34°C). Based on existing theory, we generated hypotheses about the effects of stress and acclimation on the predictability of performance in variable environments. Our empirical models poorly predicted the performance of striped marsh frogs (Limnodynastes peronii) at fluctuating temperatures, suggesting that extrapolation from studies conducted under artificial thermal conditions would lead to erroneous conclusions. During the majority of ontogenetic stages, growth and development in variable environments proceeded more rapidly than expected, suggesting that acute exposures to extreme temperatures enable greater performance than do chronic exposures. Consistent with theory, we predicted performance more accurately for the less variable thermal environment. Our results underscore the need to measure physiological performance under naturalistic thermal conditions when testing hypotheses about thermal plasticity or when parameterizing models of life-history evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)694-701
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Acclimation
  • Development
  • Growth
  • Reaction norm
  • Temperat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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