Thermal limits of leaf metabolism across biomes

Odhran S. O'sullivan, Mary A. Heskel, Peter B. Reich, Mark G. Tjoelker, Lasantha K. Weerasinghe, Aurore Penillard, Lingling Zhu, John J.G. Egerton, Keith J. Bloomfield, Danielle Creek, Nur H.A. Bahar, Kevin L. Griffin, Vaughan Hurry, Patrick Meir, Matthew H. Turnbull, Owen K. Atkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


High-temperature tolerance in plants is important in a warming world, with extreme heat waves predicted to increase in frequency and duration, potentially leading to lethal heating of leaves. Global patterns of high-temperature tolerance are documented in animals, but generally not in plants, limiting our ability to assess risks associated with climate warming. To assess whether there are global patterns in high-temperature tolerance of leaf metabolism, we quantified Tcrit (high temperature where minimal chlorophyll a fluorescence rises rapidly and thus photosystem II is disrupted) and Tmax (temperature where leaf respiration in darkness is maximal, beyond which respiratory function rapidly declines) in upper canopy leaves of 218 plant species spanning seven biomes. Mean site-based Tcrit values ranged from 41.5 °C in the Alaskan arctic to 50.8 °C in lowland tropical rainforests of Peruvian Amazon. For Tmax, the equivalent values were 51.0 and 60.6 °C in the Arctic and Amazon, respectively. Tcrit and Tmax followed similar biogeographic patterns, increasing linearly (˜8 °C) from polar to equatorial regions. Such increases in high-temperature tolerance are much less than expected based on the 20 °C span in high-temperature extremes across the globe. Moreover, with only modest high-temperature tolerance despite high summer temperature extremes, species in mid-latitude (~20–50°) regions have the narrowest thermal safety margins in upper canopy leaves; these regions are at the greatest risk of damage due to extreme heat-wave events, especially under conditions when leaf temperatures are further elevated by a lack of transpirational cooling. Using predicted heat-wave events for 2050 and accounting for possible thermal acclimation of Tcrit and Tmax, we also found that these safety margins could shrink in a warmer world, as rising temperatures are likely to exceed thermal tolerance limits. Thus, increasing numbers of species in many biomes may be at risk as heat-wave events become more severe with climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-223
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Damien Bonal, Eric Cosio and Norma Salinas for access to the sites in French Guiana and Peru; Felipe Sinca and Zsofia Strangl for field assistance in Peru and Sweden, respectively; Tom Reader for statistical advice. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for their constructive and detailed comments that helped us improve the manuscript. Access to the two Peruvian sites was also facilitated by a Moore Foundation grant (Oliver Phillips, Yadvinder Mahli, and Jon Lloyd; This work was funded by grants/fellowships from the Australian Research Council (DP0986823, DP130101252, CE140100008, FT0991448) to O.K.A., DP140103415 to M.G.T., FT110100457 to P.M., Natural Environment Research Council (UK) to P.M. (NERC NE/F002149/1), USA National Science Foundation to K.L.G. (DEB-1234162), U.S. Department of Energy to P.B.R. (DE-FG02-07ER64456), and U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) through the Southeastern Regional Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Duke University to M.G.T and Texas AgriLife Research to M.G.T.


  • T
  • heat waves
  • high-temperature tolerance
  • latitudinal patterns
  • photosynthesis
  • respiration
  • temperature extremes

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