1. It has been postulated that climate warming may pose the greatest threat species in the tropics, where ectotherms have evolved more thermal specialist physiologies. Although species could rapidly respond to environmental change through adaptation, little is known about the potential for thermal adaptation, especially in tropical species.
2. In the light of the limited empirical evidence available and predictions from mutation-selection theory, we might expect tropical ectotherms to have limited genetic variance to enable adaptation. However, as a consequence of thermodynamic constraints, we might expect this disadvantage to be at least partially offset by a fitness advantage, that is, the ‘hotter-is-better’ hypothesis.
3. Using an established quantitative genetics model and metabolic scaling relationships, we integrate the consequences of the opposing forces of thermal specialization and thermodynamic constraints on adaptive potential by evaluating extinction risk under climate warming. We conclude that the potential advantage of a higher maximal development rate can in theory more than offset the potential disadvantage of lower genetic variance associated with a thermal specialist strategy.
4. Quantitative estimates of extinction risk are fundamentally very sensitive to estimates of generation time and genetic variance. However, our qualitative conclusion that the relative risk of extinction is likely to be lower for tropical species than for temperate species is robust to assumptions regarding the effects of effective population size, mutation rate and birth rate per capita.
5. With a view to improving ecological forecasts, we use this modelling framework to review the sensitivity of our predictions to the model’s underpinning theoretical assumptions and the empirical basis of macroecological patterns that suggest thermal specialization and fitness increase towards the tropics. We conclude by suggesting priority areas for further empirical research.