Thermal sensitivity of immune function: Evidence against a generalist-specialist trade-off among endothermic and ectothermic vertebrates

Michael W. Butler, Zachary R. Stahlschmidt, Daniel R. Ardia, Scott Davies, Jon Davis, Louis J. Guillette, Nicholas Johnson, Stephen D. McCormick, Kevin McGraw, Dale Denardo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Animal body temperature (Tbody) varies over daily and annual cycles, affecting multiple aspects of biological performance in both endothermic and ectothermic animals. Yet a comprehensive comparison of thermal performance among animals varying in Tbody (mean and variance) and heat production is lacking. Thus, we examined the thermal sensitivity of immune function (a crucial fitness determinant) in Vertebrata, a group encompassing species of varying thermal biology. Specifically, we investigated temperature-related variation in two innate immune performance metrics, hemagglutination and hemolysis, for 13 species across all seven major vertebrate clades. Agglutination and lysis were temperature dependent and were more strongly related to the thermal biology of species (e.g., mean Tbody) than to the phylogenetic relatedness of species, although these relationships were complex and frequently surprising (e.g., heterotherms did not exhibit broader thermal performance curves than homeotherms). Agglutination and lysis performance were positively correlated within species, except in taxa that produce squalamine, a steroidal antibiotic that does not lyse red blood cells. Interestingly, we found the antithesis of a generalist-specialist trade-off: species with broader temperature ranges of immune performance also had higher peak performance levels. In sum, we have uncovered thermal sensitivity of immune performance in both endotherms and ectotherms, highlighting the role that temperature and life history play in immune function across Vertebrata.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)761-774
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Hemagglutination
  • Hemolysis
  • Innate immunity
  • Temperature dependence
  • Thermal performance curves
  • Vertebrata

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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