Metabolic theory of ecology
The metabolic theory of ecology (MTE) is an extension of Kleiber's law
Kleiber's law
Kleiber's law, named after Max Kleiber's biological work in the early 1930s, is the observation that, for the vast majority of animals, an animal's metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal's mass. Symbolically: if q0 is the animal's metabolic rate, and M the animal's mass, then Kleiber's...

 and posits that the metabolic rate of organisms is the fundamental biological rate that governs most observed patterns in ecology.

MTE is based on an interpretation of the relationships between body size, body temperature, and metabolic rate
Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms to sustain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. Metabolism is usually divided into two categories...

 across all organisms. Small-bodied organisms tend to have higher mass-specific metabolic rates than larger-bodied organisms. Furthermore, organisms that operate at warm temperatures through endothermy
The term warm-blooded is a colloquial term to describe animal species which have a relatively higher blood temperature, and maintain thermal homeostasis primarily through internal metabolic processes...

 or by living in warm environments tend towards higher metabolic rates than organisms that operate at colder temperatures. This pattern is consistent from the unicellular level up to the level of the largest animals on the planet.

In MTE, this relationship is considered to be the single constraint that defines biological processes at all levels of organization (from individual up to ecosystem level), and is a macroecological
Macroecology is the subfield of ecology that deals with the study of relationships between organisms and their environment at large spatial scales to characterise and explain statistical patterns of abundance, distribution and diversity...

 theory that aims to be universal in scope and application.

Theoretical background

Metabolic rate scales with the mass of an organism of a given species according to Kleiber's law
Kleiber's law
Kleiber's law, named after Max Kleiber's biological work in the early 1930s, is the observation that, for the vast majority of animals, an animal's metabolic rate scales to the ¾ power of the animal's mass. Symbolically: if q0 is the animal's metabolic rate, and M the animal's mass, then Kleiber's...

 where B is whole organism metabolic rate (in watts or other unit of power), M is organism mass (in kg), and Bo is a mass-independent normalization constant (given in a unit of power divided by a unit of mass. In this case, watts per kilogram):

At increased temperatures, chemical reactions proceed faster. This relationship is described by the Boltzmann factor
Boltzmann factor
In physics, the Boltzmann factor is a weighting factor that determines the relative probability of a particle to be in a state i in a multi-state system in thermodynamic equilibrium at temperature T...

, where E is activation energy
Activation energy
In chemistry, activation energy is a term introduced in 1889 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius that is defined as the energy that must be overcome in order for a chemical reaction to occur. Activation energy may also be defined as the minimum energy required to start a chemical reaction...

 in electronvolt
In physics, the electron volt is a unit of energy equal to approximately joule . By definition, it is equal to the amount of kinetic energy gained by a single unbound electron when it accelerates through an electric potential difference of one volt...

s or joule
The joule ; symbol J) is a derived unit of energy or work in the International System of Units. It is equal to the energy expended in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre , or in passing an electric current of one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second...

s, t is absolute temperature in kelvins, and k is the Boltzmann constant in eV/K or J/K:

While Bo in the previous equation is mass-independent, it is not explicitly independent of temperature. To explain the relationship between body mass and temperature, these two equations are combined to produce the primary equation of the MTE, where bo is a normalization constant that is independent of body size or temperature:

According to this relationship, metabolic rate is a function of an organism’s body mass and body temperature. By this equation, large organisms have proportionally higher metabolic rates (in Watts) than small organisms, and organisms at high body temperatures have higher metabolic rates than those that exist at low body temperatures.However specific metabolic rate (SMR, in Watts/kg) is given by

Hence SMR for large organisms are lower than small organisms.

Controversy over exponent

There is disagreement amongst researchers about the most accurate value for use in the power function, and whether the factor is indeed universal. The main disagreement is whether metabolic rate scales to the power of 3/4 or 2/3. The majority view is currently that 3/4 is the correct exponent, but a large minority believe that 2/3 is the more accurate value. Although a rigorous exploration of the controversy over choice of scaling factor is beyond the scope of this article, it is informative to understand the biological justification for the use of either value.

The argument that 2/3 should be the correct scaling factor is based on the assumption that energy dissipation across the surface area of three dimensional organisms is the key factor driving the relationship between metabolic rate and body size. Smaller organisms tend to have higher surface area to volume ratios, causing them to lose heat energy at a faster rate than large organisms. As a consequence, small organisms must have higher specific metabolic rates to combat this loss of energy over their large surface area to volume ratio.

In contrast, the argument for a 3/4 scaling factor is based on a hydraulic model of energy distribution in organisms, where the primary source of energy dissipation is across the membranes of internal distribution networks. This model is based on the idea that metabolism is essentially the rate at which an organism’s distribution networks (such as circulatory systems in animals or xylem and phloem in plants) deliver nutrients and energy to body tissues. It therefore takes longer for large organisms to distribute nutrients throughout the body and thus they have a slower metabolic rate. The 3/4 factor is then derived from the observation that selection favors a fractal
A fractal has been defined as "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole," a property called self-similarity...

 or near-fractal distribution network for space-filling circulatory systems. All fractal networks terminate in identical units (such as capillary beds), and the number of such units in organisms is proportional to a 3/4 power relationship with body size.

Despite the controversy over the value of the exponent, the implications of this theory would remain true regardless of its precise numerical value.

Implications of the theory

The metabolic theory of ecology’s main implication is that metabolic rate, and the influence of body size and temperature on metabolic rate, provide the fundamental constraints by which ecological processes are governed. If this holds true from the level of the individual up to ecosystem level processes, then life history attributes, population dynamics, and ecosystem processes could be explained by the relationship between metabolic rate, body size, and body temperature.

Organism level

Small animals tend to grow fast, breed early, and die young. According to MTE, these patterns in life history
Life history theory
Life history theory posits that the schedule and duration of key events in an organism's lifetime are shaped by natural selection to produce the largest possible number of surviving offspring...

 traits are constrained by metabolism. An organisms’ metabolic rate determines its rate of food consumption, which in turn determines its rate of growth. This increased growth rate produces trade-offs that accelerate senescence
Senescence or biological aging is the change in the biology of an organism as it ages after its maturity. Such changes range from those affecting its cells and their function to those affecting the whole organism...

. For example, metabolic processes produce free radicals
Radical (chemistry)
Radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons on an open shell configuration. Free radicals may have positive, negative, or zero charge...

 as a by-product of energy production. These in turn cause damage at the cellular level, which promotes senescence and ultimately death. Selection favors organisms which best propagate given these constraints, so as a result smaller, shorter lived organisms tend to reproduce earlier in their life histories.

Population and community level

MTE has profound implications for the interpretation of population growth and community diversity. Classically, species are thought of as being either r selected (where population size is limited by the exponential rate of population growth) or K selected (where population size is limited by carrying capacity). MTE explains this diversity of reproductive strategies as a consequence of the metabolic constraints of organisms. Small organisms and organisms that exist at high body temperatures tend to be r selected, which fits with the prediction that r selection is a consequence of metabolic rate. Conversely, larger and cooler bodied animals tend to be K selected. The relationship between body size and rate of population growth has been demonstrated empirically, and in fact has been shown to scale to M-1/4 across taxonomic groups. The optimal population growth rate for a species is therefore thought to be determined by the allometric constraints outlined by the MTE, rather than strictly as a life history trait that is selected for based on environmental conditions.

Observed patterns of diversity can be similarly explained by MTE. It has long been observed that there are more small species than large species. In addition, there are more species in the tropics than at higher latitudes. Classically, the latitudinal gradient in species diversity has been explained by factors such as higher productivity or reduced seasonality. In contrast, MTE explains this pattern as being driven by the kinetic constraints imposed by temperature on metabolism. The rate of molecular evolution scales with metabolic rate, such that organisms with higher metabolic rates show a higher rate of change at the molecular level. If a higher rate of molecular evolution causes increased speciation rates, then adaptation and ultimately speciation may occur more quickly in warm environments and in small bodied species, ultimately explaining observed patterns of diversity across body size and latitude.

MTE’s ability to explain patterns of diversity remains controversial. For example, researchers analyzed patterns of diversity of New World coral snakes to see whether the geographical distribution of species fit within the predictions of MTE (i.e. more species in warmer areas). They found that the observed pattern of diversity could not be explained by temperature alone, and that other spatial factors such as primary productivity, topographic heterogeneity, and habitat factors better predicted the observed pattern.

Ecosystem processes

At the ecosystem level, MTE explains the relationship between temperature and production of biomass. The average production to biomass ratio of organisms is higher in small organisms than large ones. This relationship is further regulated by temperature, and the rate of production increases with temperature. As production consistently scales with body mass, MTE predicts that the primary factor that causes differing rates of production between ecosystems is temperature and not the mass of organisms within the ecosystem. This suggests that regions with similar climactic factors would sustain the same primary production, even if standing biomass is different.

See also

  • Allometry
  • Constructal theory
    Constructal theory
    The constructal law puts forth the idea that the generation of design in nature is a physics phenomenon that unites all animate and inanimate systems, and that this phenomenon is covered by the Constructal Law...

  • Dynamic energy budget
    Dynamic energy budget
    The Dynamic Energy Budget theory aims to identify simple quantitative rules for the organization of metabolism of individual organisms that can be understood from basic first principles...

  • Ecology
    Ecology is the scientific study of the relations that living organisms have with respect to each other and their natural environment. Variables of interest to ecologists include the composition, distribution, amount , number, and changing states of organisms within and among ecosystems...

  • Evolutionary physiology
    Evolutionary physiology
    Evolutionary physiology is the study of physiological evolution, which is to say, the manner in which the functional characteristics of individuals in a population of organisms have responded to selection across multiple generations during the history of the population.It is a subdiscipline of both...

  • Occupancy-abundance relationship
    Occupancy-abundance relationship
    In macroecology, the occupancy-abundance relationship is the relationship between the abundance of species and the size of their ranges within a region. This relationship is perhaps one of the most well-documented relationships in macroecology, and applies both intra- and interspecifically . In...

  • Scaling
    Scaling may refer to:* Scaling , a linear transformation that enlarges or diminishes objects* Reduced scales of semiconductor device fabrication processes...

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