Current shifts in ecosystem composition and function emphasize the need for an understanding of the links between environmental factors and organism fitness and tolerance. The examples discussed here illustrate how recent progress in the field of comparative physiology may provide a better mechanistic understanding of the ecological concepts of the fundamental and realized niches and thus provide insights into the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance. Here we argue that, as a link between physiological and ecological indicators of organismal performance, the mechanisms shaping aerobic scope and passive tolerance set the dimensions of an animal's niche, here defined as its capacity to survive, grow, behave, and interact with other species. We demonstrate how comparative studies of cod or killifish populations in a latitudinal cline have unraveled mitochondrial mechanisms involved in establishing a species' niche, performance, and energy budget. Riverine fish exemplify how the performance windows of various developmental stages follow the dynamic regimes of both seasonal temperatures and river hydrodynamics, as synergistic challenges. Finally, studies of species in extreme environments, such as the tilapia of Lake Magadi, illustrate how on evolutionary timescales functional and morphological shifts can occur, associated with new specializations. We conclude that research on the processes and time course of adaptations suitable to overcome current niche limits is urgently needed to assess the resilience of species and ecosystems to human impact, including the challenges of global climate change.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Animal Science and Zoology