Thermal adaptation in the intertidal snail Echinolittorina malaccana contradicts current theory by revealing the crucial roles of resting metabolism

David J. Marshall, Yun-wei Dong, Christopher D. McQuaid and Gray A. Williams


Contemporary theory for thermal adaptation of ectothermic metazoans focuses on the maximization of energy gain and performance (locomotion and foraging). Little consideration is given to the selection for mechanisms that minimize resting energy loss in organisms whose energy gain is severely constrained. We tested a hypothetical framework for thermal performance of locomotor activity (a proxy for energy gain) and resting metabolism (a proxy for energy loss) in energetically compromised snails in the littoral fringe zone, comparing this with existing theory. In contrast to theory, the thermal ranges and optima for locomotor performance and metabolic performance of Echinolittorina malaccana are mismatched, and energy gain is only possible at relatively cool temperatures. To overcome thermal and temporal constraints on energy gain while experiencing high body temperatures (23–50°C), these snails depress resting metabolism between 35 and 46°C (thermally insensitive zone). The resulting bimodal relationship for metabolism against temperature contrasts with the unimodal or exponential relationships of most ectotherms. Elevation of metabolism above the breakpoint temperature for thermal insensitivity (46°C) coincides with the induction of a heat shock response, and has implications for energy expenditure and natural selection. Time-dependent mortality is initiated at this breakpoint temperature, suggesting a threshold above which the rate of energy demand exceeds the capacity for cellular energy generation (rate of ATP turnover). Mortality in a thermal range that elevates rather than limits aerobic metabolism contrasts with the hypothesis that cellular oxygen deficiency underlies temperature-related mortality. The findings of this study point to the need to incorporate aspects of resting metabolism and energy conservation into theories of thermal adaptation.