Data for: Ecologically relevant thermal fluctuations enhance offspring fitness: biological and methodological implications for studies of thermal developmental plasticity
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Natural thermal environments are notably complex and challenging to mimic in controlled studies. Consequently, our understanding of the ecological relevance and underlying mechanisms of organismal responses to thermal environments is often limited. For example, studies of thermal developmental plasticity have provided key insights into the ecological consequences of temperature variation, but most laboratory studies use treatments that do not reflect natural thermal regimes. While controlling other important factors, we compared the effects of naturally fluctuating temperatures to commonly used laboratory regimes on development of lizard embryos and offspring phenotypes and survival. We incubated eggs in 4 treatments – 3 that followed procedures commonly used in the literature, and one that precisely mimicked naturally fluctuating nest temperatures. To explore context-dependent effects, we replicated these treatments across two seasonal regimes: relatively cool temperatures from nests constructed early in the season and warm temperatures from late-season nests. We show that natural thermal fluctuations have a relatively small effect on developmental variables but enhance hatchling performance and survival at cooler temperatures. Thus, natural thermal fluctuations are important for successful development and simpler approximations (e.g. repeated sine waves, constant temperatures) may poorly reflect natural systems under some conditions. Thus, the benefits of precisely replicating real-world temperatures in controlled studies may outweigh logistical costs. Although patterns might vary according to study system and research goals, our methodological approach demonstrates the importance of incorporating natural variation into controlled studies and provides biologists interested in thermal ecology with a framework for validating the effectiveness of commonly used methods.