Metabolic rate underlies a wide range of phenomena from cellular dynamics to ecosystem structure and function. Models seeking to statistically explain variation in metabolic rate across vertebrates are largely based on body size and temperature. Unexpectedly, these models overlook variation in the size of gills and lungs that acquire the oxygen needed to fuel aerobic processes. Here, we assess the importance of respiratory surface area in explaining patterns of metabolic rate across the vertebrate tree of life using a novel phylogenetic Bayesian multilevel modeling framework coupled with a species-paired dataset of metabolic rate and respiratory surface area. We reveal that respiratory surface area explains twice as much variation in metabolic rate, compared to temperature, across the vertebrate tree of life. Understanding the combination of oxygen acquisition and transport provides opportunity to understand the evolutionary history of metabolic rate and improve models that quantify the impacts of climate change.
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