Abstract

Ectothermic vertebrates respond to the temperature of their habitat in a manner that is remarkably similar to their response to more traditional ecological resources such as food. We review the response to temperature primarily from literature on fishes in terms of ecological concepts related to niche theory and competition. The width of the fundamental thermal niche is about 4°C when measured by a mean plus and minus one standard deviation of the distribution of temperature occupied in a laboratory gradient. Fish of temperate freshwater appear to fall into three thermal guilds along the temperature resource axis —cold, cool, and warm water fishes. Realized thermal niches are similar in central tendency to fundamental niches, but niche width appears to be more narrow for the realized niche in limited sample data. The success of interference competition for space with preferred temperature is tied to social dominance in a manner analogous to food competition. Thermal niche shifts in the face of interspecific competition for preferred temperature appear supported by one laboratory study. Exploitation competition in respect to temperature seems nebulous. If animals successfully compete for their thermal niche, growth and perhaps other measures of fitness are maximized. Cost/benefit models for thermal resources and food resources lead to similar predictions about resource use. We suggest that viewing temperature and other niche axes in the way ecologists have viewed food resources would be useful.