Global variation in the thermal tolerances of plants

Lesley T. Lancaster*, Aelys M. Humphreys

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Citations (Scopus)
16 Downloads (Pure)


Thermal macrophysiology is an established research field that has led to well-described patterns in the global structuring of climate adaptation and risk. However, since it was developed primarily in animals, we lack information on how general these patterns are across organisms. This is alarming if we are to understand how thermal tolerances are distributed globally, improve predictions of climate change, and mitigate effects. We approached this knowledge gap by compiling a geographically and taxonomically extensive database on plant heat and cold tolerances and used this dataset to test for thermal macrophysiological patterns and processes in plants. We found support for several expected patterns: Cold tolerances are more variable and exhibit steeper latitudinal clines and stronger relationships with local environmental temperatures than heat tolerances overall. Next, we disentangled the importance of local environments and evolutionary and biogeographic histories in generating these patterns. We found that all three processes have significantly contributed to variation in both heat and cold tolerances but that their relative importance differs. We also show that failure to simultaneously account for all three effects overestimates the importance of the included variable, challenging previous conclusions drawn from less comprehensive models. Our results are consistent with rare evolutionary innovations in cold acclimation ability structuring plant distributions across biomes. In contrast, plant heat tolerances vary mainly as a result of biogeographical processes and drift. Our results further highlight that all plants, particularly at mid-to-high latitudes and in their nonhardened state, will become increasingly vulnerable to ongoing climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13580-13587
Number of pages8
Issue number24
Early online date1 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Data availability:
The global dataset of gplant thermal tolerances generated for and analysed within this study is appended to Supplementary Information (SI Dataset).

We thank Mark Adams for providing code to optimise spatial distance kernels, and Jake Alexander, Per-Ola Karis, members of the BES Macroecology SIG, and members of the Bolin Centre for Climate Research (Research Area 8) for helpful discussions.


  • acclimation
  • cold
  • hardening
  • heat
  • hemisphere
  • latitude
  • macrophysiology
  • temperature
  • Temperature
  • Macrophysiology
  • Latitude
  • Hardening
  • Cold and heat


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