People and ecosystems

Understanding of the links between coral reef ecosystems, the goods and services they provide to people, and the wellbeing of human societies.


Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

Examining the multi-scale dynamics of reefs, from population dynamics to macroevolution


Responding to a changing world

Advancing the fundamental understanding of the key processes underpinning reef resilience.

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Studies

From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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Jessica Nowicki

Jessica Nowicki

PhD graduate

BA, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (2008), Grad Dip, James Cook University (2011) PhD (in prog.), James Cook Univeristy (exp: 2016)

James Cook University

PhD Candidate

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (ARC CoE)

room 128, Sir George Fisher Research Bld

James Cook University


Phone: +61 7 4781 6024
Email: jessica.nowicki@my.jcu.edu.au

Having been born and raised in Wisconsin, USA, Jess hadn’t become enlightened (i.e., seen the ocean) until she was 17, during a vacation to North Carolina. With much bewilderment, she realized there was more meaning to life than Miller Light beer and ridiculously good cheese. By exchanging her cheese head for fins, she embarked upon her journey toward becoming a marine biologist. From 2008-10, she focused her research on the effects of ocean acidification and increased sea surface temperatures on the behaviour of marine invertebrates and fishes. Today, she has shifted her PhD research direction towards examining the adaptive and neural basis of pro-social behaviour in coral reef fishes. She hopes to make a career of building a scientific and public appreciation for the extent to which earlier vertebrates can display pro-social relationships in ways that are currently appreciated among later vertebrates, including humans. Her PhD supervisors are Dr. Stefan Walker and Prof. Morgan Pratchett from ARC CoE for Coral reef Studies; and Dr. Lauren O’Connell, from Harvard University.

Project Title:

Examining the adaptive and neural basis of pair bonding in coral reef Butterflyfishes (f: Chaetodontidae)

Project Description:

Pair bonding profoundly shapes our own nature, but has also independently evolved numerous times across all major vertebrate lineages.  Tremendous insight has been gained into  why (the ultimate, adaptive reason) and how (the proximate, neural reason) pair bonding  has evolved in later vertebrates, such as humans, non-human mammals, and birds. By contrast,  little is known about the basis of this trait in earlier vertebrates, including fishes. For my PhD, I focus on understanding the adaptive and neural bases of coral reef fish pair bonding.  I began by developing a butterflyfish (f: Chaetodontidae; g: Chaetodon) model system for neural research, which exhibits spectacular intra- and inter-species variation in pairing sociality. Using this system, I integrate comparative genomics with pharmacology, revealing neuro-chemical and –anatomical substrates of the trait. Finally, I conduct extensive in situ observational and experimental studies in order to explore hypotheses for the adaptive function pair bonding in these organisms.  My research sheds light onto the adaptive and neural basis of coral reef fish pair bonding. More broadly, it generates novel insight into whether the convergent evolution of vertebrate pair bonding is consequent of a converged adaptive function and/or underlying neural mechanism.  My research, interdisciplinary at it’s core, is undertaken at Lizard Island, (Great Barrier Reef, Australia);  and Harvard University.


Principal supervisor: Professor Morgan Pratchett (ARC CoE CRS).

Supervisory committee: Dr. Stefan Walker (ARC CoE CRS) and Dr. Lauren O’Connell (Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University).

Publications List:

Maldonado, J.P. Nowicki, M. Pratchett, D. Schlenk  (in review). Differences in Diet and Biotransformation Enzymes of Coral Reef Butterflyfishes between Australia and Hawaii. MEPS.

Pratchett, S., S. Blowes, D. Coker, E. Kurbacki, J. P. Nowicki, A. Hoey (2014).  Indirect benefits of high coral cover for non-corallivorous butterflyfish. Coral Reefs. 34.2: 665-672.

Coker, D., J. P. Nowicki, M. Pratchett (2014).  Body condition of the coral-dwelling fish Dascyllus aruanus (Linnaeus 1758) following host colony bleaching. Environmental Biology of Fishes. 1-5.

Nowicki, J. P., A. Dewan, S. Walker. (2013). Butterflyfishes as a model group for reef fish ecology: important and emerging research topics.  In M.S. Pratchett; M. L. Berumen; B. G. Kapoor (Eds.), Biology of Butterflyfishes.  CRC Press.

Nowicki, J. P., G. M. Miller, P. L. Munday (2012). Interactive effects of elevated  temperature and CO2 on foraging behaviour of juvenile coral reef fish. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.412:46-51.


2012:  Postgraduate Diploma of Research Methods-graduated with honors.


2016     Travel grant from Australian Coral Reef Society to ICRS ($500)

2015     Travel grant to Society for Developmental Biology ($500)

2015     Travel grant to Australian Research Council CoE conf. ($500)

2014     ARC CoE Graduate Student Research Scholarship ($1,861)

2014     NSF EDEN travel grant to European Society for Evo. Devo.  ($500)

2013     NSF EDEN research travel scholarship to Harvard University ($3,000)

2012-15     James Cook University’s International Post-graduate Research Scholarship ($83,125)

2008      NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) scholarship ($4,000)


Press about Jessica’s research:

From a Grafton pond to the Great Barrier Reef


Australian Research Council Pandora

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