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1. Extreme climatic events (ECEs) are predicted to become more frequent as the climate changes. A rapidly increasing number of studies – though few on animals – suggest that the biological consequences of ECEs can be severe.2. However, ecological research on the impacts of ECEs has been limited by a lack of cohesiveness and structure. ECEs are often poorly defined and have often been confusingly equated with climatic variability, making comparison between studies difficult. In addition, a focus on short-term studies has provided us with little information on the long-term implications of ECEs, and the descriptive and anecdotal nature of many studies has meant it is still unclear what the key research questions are.3. Synthesizing the current state of work is essential to identify ways to make progress. We conduct a synthesis of the literature and discuss conceptual and practical challenges faced by research on ECEs.4. We consider three steps to advance research. First, we discuss the importance of choosing an ECE definition and identify the pros and cons of ‘climatological’ and ‘biological’ definitions of ECEs. Secondly, we advocate research beyond short-term descriptive studies to address questions concerning the long-term implications of ECEs, focussing on selective pressures and phenotypically plastic responses and how they might differ from responses to a changing climatic mean. Finally, we encourage a greater focus on multi-event studies that help us understand the implications of changing patterns of ECEs, through the combined use of modelling, experimental and observational field studies.5. This study aims to open a discussion on the definitions, questions and methods currently used to study ECEs, which will lead to a more cohesive approach to future ECE research.There has been growing ecological interest on the topic of extreme climatic events, yet there has been no critical discussion of current work. In this paper the authors discuss how to define an extreme event, potential future research questions, and methods to improve research quality.