CONCEPTS & SYNTHESIS
The neurobiology of climate change
Received: 30 March 2017 /Revised: 6 December 2017 /Accepted: 23 December 2017 / Published online: 6 January 2018
Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018
Directional climate change (global warming) is causing rapid alterations in animals’ environments. Because the nervous system
is at the forefront of animals’ interactions with the environment, the neurobiological implications of climate change are central to
understanding how individuals, and ultimately populations, will respond to global warming. Evidence is accumulating for
individual level, mechanistic effects of climate change on nervous system development and performance. Climate change can
also alter sensory stimuli, changing the effectiveness of sensory and cognitive systems for achieving biological fitness. At the
population level, natural selection forces stemming from directional climate change may drive rapid evolutionary change in
nervous system structure and function.
Keywords Brain development
Temperature and related abiotic factors play key roles in fit-
ness variation, as evidenced by animals’ myriad behavioral
and physiological adaptations to their thermal environments
(Sibly and Calow 1986; Bozinovic and Portner 2015). Here, I
develop the idea that the nervous system is a key target for
human-induced directional climate change (global warming)
effects on animals, both mechanistically at the individual level
and evolutionarily as animal populations evolve in response to
changing abiotic conditions.
Nervous systems are fundamental to understanding animal
responses to directional climate change on multiple time scales.
Nervous and sensory systems equip animals to detect and re-
spond to environmental variation, and endocrine and behavior-
al responses to climate change therefore largely depend on
neural function (Wingfield 2008). From a mechanistic perspec-
tive, direct effects of temperature, and indirect temperature ef-
fects via other climate change-associated abiotic environment
changes, can impact the performance of sensory and other cog-
nitive systems. The nervous system (including sensory tissues)
is at the forefront of animal responses to the abiotic
environment. Abiotic effects on neural mechanisms may im-
pact individual responses to changing climates. At the popula-
tion and species levels, adaptations of sensation, perception,
and cognitive neural systems to abiotic environments are well
established in numerous animal taxa; changing abiotic environ-
ments can select on neurally relevant genetic variation, leading
to evolutionary changes in nervous system function (Fig. 1).
Changing climates are likely to impose natural selection forces
on nervous systems, providing opportunities to study the pro-
cess of neural evolutionary adaptations in nature. Behavioral
and ecological responses to directionally changing climates
have occurred over short (i.e., decadal or less) time scales in
numerous species (Parmesan 2006;Grantetal.2017). Climate
change therefore presents excellent opportunities to study the
dynamics of neural evolution following changes in selective
regimes related to directional abiotic change.
Neural mechanisms underlie, and enable or constrain, ani-
mals’ behavioral responses to the environment. The nervous
system is a major, if not the major, point of immediate contact
between animals and their abiotic surroundings.
Neurobiology is therefore profoundly relevant to understand-
ing and predicting the effects of directional abiotic change on
behavior, and by extension to predicting population-level
changes such as shifting geographic ranges (Chen et al.
2011; Warren et al. 2016), dispersal and migration patterns
(Cotton 2003; Schloss et al. 2012), and the phenology of eco-
logical interactions (Badeck et al. 2004; Jeschke and Strayer
2008; Wingfield 2008).
Communicated by: Sven Thatje
* Sean O’Donnell
Department of Biodiversity Earth and Environmental Science,
Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
The Science of Nature (2018) 105: 11