Microclimate Buffering and Thermal Tolerance Across Elevations in a Tropical Butterfly

May 11, 2020 | Biotechnology

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Gabriela Montejo-Kovacevich, Simon H. Martin, Joana I. Meier, Caroline N. Bacquet, Monica Monllor, Chris D. Jiggins, and Nicola J. Nadeau

Microclimatic variability in tropical forests plays a key role in shaping species distributions and their ability to cope with environmental change, especially for ectotherms. Nonetheless, currently available climatic datasets lack data from the forest interior and, furthermore, our knowledge of thermal tolerance among tropical ectotherms is limited. We therefore studied natural variation in the microclimate experienced by tropical butterflies in the genus Heliconius across their Andean range in a single year. We found that the forest strongly buffers temperature and humidity in the understorey, especially in the lowlands, where temperatures are more extreme. There were systematic differences between our yearly records and macroclimate databases (WorldClim2), with lower interpolated minimum temperatures and maximum temperatures higher than expected. We then assessed thermal tolerance of 10 Heliconius butterfly species in the wild and found that populations at high elevations had significantly lower heat tolerance than those at lower elevations. However, when we reared populations of the widespread H. erato from high and low elevations in a common-garden environment, the difference in heat tolerance across elevations was reduced, indicating plasticity in this trait. Microclimate buffering is not currently captured in publicly available datasets, but could be crucial for enabling upland shifting of species sensitive to heat such as highland Heliconius. Plasticity in thermal tolerance may alleviate the effects of global warming on some widespread ectotherm species, but more research is needed... More of this in the Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB) Blog.

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