Tiny climate worlds: Animals use microclimates to survive

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How far would you have to move in these 100-degree days to find a place 10 degrees cooler?

Humans might have to drive for days. But a bug on an arrowleaf balsamroot flower might only need to shift to a different leaf.

Arrowleaf balsamroot in Glacier National Park.

Jacob W. Frank, NPS

“If you look at the plant with a thermal infrared camera, its astonishingly diverse,” said Art Woods, an ecophysiologist at the University of Montana. “Within a single plant, you can get a 10- to 15-degree range of surface temperatures. That’s what you get across hundreds or thousands of kilometers of latitudinal change. The local diversity of a plant is really extreme.”

In this infrared image, the widely varying temperature zones of the same arrowleaf balsamroot patch show how insects can find comfortable niches simply by moving to a different spot on the plant. The lighter-to-darker colors indicate temperature changes of more than 10 degrees F.

Rob Chaney

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