In recent decades documented biological changes in the far Northern Hemisphere have been attributed to global warming, changes from species extinctions to shifting geographic ranges. Such changes were expected because warming has been fastest in the northern temperate zone and the Arctic. But new research published in the Oct. 7 edition of Nature adds to growing evidence that, even though the temperature increase has been smaller in the tropics, the impact of warming on life could be much greater there than in colder climates.

The study focused on ectothermic, or cold-blooded, organisms (those whose body temperature approximates the temperature of their surroundings). Researchers used nearly 500 million temperature readings from more than 3,000 stations around the world to chart temperature increases from 1961 through 2009, then examined the effect of those increases on metabolism.

“The expectation was that physiological changes would also be greatest in the north temperate-Arctic region, but when we ran the numbers that expectation was flipped on its head,” said lead author Michael Dillon, an assistant professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming.

Metabolic changes are key to understanding some major impacts of climate warming because a higher metabolic rate requires more food and more oxygen, said co-author Raymond Huey, a University of Washington biology professor. If, for example, an organism has to spend more time eating or conserving energy, it might have less time and energy for reproduction.

“Metabolic rate tells you how fast the animal is living and thus its intensity of life,” Huey said.