10. Kontopoulos, D.-G., Smith, T.P., Lange, Barraclough, T.G., and Pawar, S. (2019). Adaptive evolution explains the present-day distribution of the thermal sensitivity of population growth rate. bioRxiv.


Developing a thorough understanding of how ectotherm physiology adapts to different thermal environments is of crucial importance, especially in the face of climate change. In particular, the study of how the relationship between trait performance and temperature (the "thermal performance curve"; TPC) evolves has been receiving increasing attention over the past years. A key aspect of the TPC is the thermal sensitivity, i.e., the rate at which trait values increase with temperature within temperature ranges typically experienced by the organism. For a given trait, the distribution of thermal sensitivity values across species is typically right-skewed. The mechanisms that underlie the shape of this distribution are hotly debated, ranging from strongly thermodynamically constrained evolution to adaptive evolution that can partly overcome thermodynamic constraints. Here we take a phylogenetic comparative approach and examine the evolution of the thermal sensitivity of population growth rate across phytoplankton and prokaryotes. We find that thermal sensitivity is moderately phylogenetically heritable and that the shape of its distribution is the outcome of frequent evolutionary convergence. More precisely, bursts of rapid evolution in thermal sensitivity can be detected throughout the phylogeny, increasing the amount of overlap among the distributions of thermal sensitivity of different clades. We obtain qualitatively similar results from evolutionary analyses of the thermal sensitivities of two underlying physiological traits, net photosynthesis rate and respiration rate of plants. Finally, we show that part of the variation in thermal sensitivity is driven by latitude, potentially as an adaptation to the magnitude of temperature fluctuations. Overall, our results indicate that adaptation can lead to large shifts in thermal sensitivity, suggesting that attention needs to be paid towards elucidating the implications of these evolutionary patterns for ecosystem function.

Full text | citation