Seasonal variations in seawater temperature require extensive metabolic acclimatization in cold-blooded organisms inhabiting the coastal waters of Europe. Given the energetic costs of acclimatization, differences in adaptive capacity to climatic conditions are to be expected among distinct populations of species that are distributed over a wide geographic range. We studied seasonal variations in the metabolic adjustments of two very common bivalve taxa at European scale. To this end we sampled 16 populations of Mytilus spp. and 10 Macoma balthica populations distributed from 39° to 69°N. The results from this large-scale comprehensive comparison demonstrated seasonal cycles in metabolic rates which were maximized during winter and springtime, and often reduced in the summer and autumn. Studying the sensitivity of metabolic rates to thermal variations, we found that a broad range of Q10 values occurred under relatively cold conditions. As habitat temperatures increased the range of Q10 narrowed, reaching a bottleneck in southern marginal populations during summer. For Mytilus spp., genetic-group-specific clines and limits on Q10 values were observed at temperatures corresponding to the maximum climatic conditions these geographic populations presently experience. Such specific limitations indicate differential thermal adaptation among these divergent groups. They may explain currently observed migrations in mussel distributions and invasions. Our results provide a practical framework for the thermal ecophysiology of bivalves, the assessment of environmental changes due to climate change and its impact on (and consequences for) aquaculture. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00442-007-0808-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.