Oxygen limitation may affect the temperature and size dependence of metabolism in aquatic ectotherms

Juan G. Rubalcaba, Wilco C.E.P. Verberk, A. Jan Hendriks, Bart Saris, H. Arthur Woods

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Both oxygen and temperature are fundamental factors determining metabolic performance, fitness, ecological niches, and responses of many aquatic organisms to climate change. Despite the importance of physical and physiological constraints on oxygen supply affecting aerobic metabolism of aquatic ectotherms, ecological theories such as the metabolic theory of ecology have focused on the effects of temperature rather than oxygen. This gap currently impedes mechanistic models from accurately predicting metabolic rates (i.e., oxygen consumption rates) of aquatic organisms and restricts predictions to resting metabolism, which is less affected by oxygen limitation. Here, we expand on models of metabolic scaling by accounting for the role of oxygen availability and temperature on both resting and active metabolic rates. Our model predicts that oxygen limitation is more likely to constrain metabolism in larger, warmer, and active fish. Consequently, active metabolic rates are less responsive to temperature than are resting metabolic rates, and metabolism scales to body size with a smaller exponent whenever temperatures or activity levels are higher. Results from a metaanalysis of fish metabolic rates are consistent with our model predictions. The observed interactive effects of temperature, oxygen availability, and body size predict that global warming will limit the aerobic scope of aquatic ectotherms and may place a greater metabolic burden on larger individuals, impairing their physiological performance in the future. Our model reconciles the metabolic theory with empirical observations of oxygen limitation and provides a formal, quantitative framework for predicting both resting and active metabolic rate and hence aerobic scope of aquatic ectotherms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31963-31968
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 15 2020


  • Aerobic scope
  • Biophysical modeling
  • Fish
  • Metabolic scaling
  • Teleost


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