Microhabitat conditions remedy heat stress effects on insect activity
Anthropogenic global warming has major implications for mobile terrestrial insects, including long-term effects from constant warming, for example, on species distribution patterns, and short-term effects from heat extremes that induce immediate physiological responses. To cope with heat extremes, they either have to reduce their activity or move to preferable microhabitats. The availability of favorable microhabitat conditions is strongly promoted by the spatial heterogeneity of habitats, which is often reduced by anthropogenic land transformation. Thus, it is decisive to understand the combined effects of these global change drivers on insect activity. Here, we assessed the movement activity of six insect species (from three orders) in response to heat stress using a unique tracking approach via radio frequency identification. We tracked 465 individuals at the iDiv Ecotron across a temperature gradient up to 38.7°C. In addition, we varied microhabitat conditions by adding leaf litter from four different tree species to the experimental units, either spatially separated or well mixed. Our results show opposing effects of heat extremes on insect activity depending on the microhabitat conditions. The insect community significantly decreased its activity in the mixed litter scenario, while we found a strong positive effect on activity in the separated litter scenario. We hypothesize that the simultaneous availability of thermal refugia as well as resources provided by the mixed litter scenario allows animals to reduce their activity and save energy in response to heat stress. Contrary, the spatial separation of beneficial microclimatic conditions and resources forces animals to increase their activity to fulfill their energetic needs. Thus, our study highlights the importance of habitat heterogeneity on smaller scales, because it may buffer the consequences of extreme temperatures of insect performance and survival under global change.