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Predicting when, where and with what magnitude climate change is likely to affect the fitness, abundance and distribution of organisms and the functioning of ecosystems has emerged as a high priority for scientists and resource managers. However, even in cases where we have detailed knowledge of current species’ range boundaries, we often do not understand what, if any, aspects of weather and climate act to set these limits. This shortcoming significantly curtails our capacity to predict potential future range shifts in response to climate change, especially since the factors that set range boundaries under those novel conditions may be different from those that set limits today. We quantitatively examine a nine-year time series of temperature records relevant to the body temperatures of intertidal mussels as measured using biomimetic sensors. Specifically, we explore how a ‘climatology’ of body temperatures, as opposed to long-term records of habitat-level parameters such as air and water temperatures, can be used to extrapolate meaningful spatial and temporal patterns of physiological stress. Using different metrics that correspond to various aspects of physiological stress (seasonal means, cumulative temperature and the return time of extremes) we show that these potential environmental stressors do not always occur in synchrony with one another. Our analysis also shows that patterns of animal temperature are not well correlated with simple, commonly used metrics such as air temperature. Detailed physiological studies can provide guidance to predicting the effects of global climate change on natural ecosystems but only if we concomitantly record, archive and model environmental signals at appropriate scales.

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