I have broad interests in the ecology and early life history of marine fishes, as well as the potential for ectotherms to cope with future climate change. Much of my research to date has focused on the ecological impacts of climate change to marine fishes and the potential for species to acclimate to the predicted environmental changes. To tackle these questions, I use state of the art environmentally controlled research aquariums systems that simulate future conditions.   

My research concentrates on understanding phenotypic plasticity and parental effects. Much of my work has focused on exploring the importance and prevalence of developmental plasticity, when fish experience warmer conditions in the first months of life, as well as the potential for plasticity across generations. More recently my focus has shifted to understand when previous generations (parents and grandparents) need to experience warming to result in phenotypic changes in the current generation. I am also interested in the role that behavioural plasticity and thermoregulation could play in the response of more mobile reef fish to ocean acidification and warming.


  • Impacts of climate change on marine fishes Acclimation and adaptation to climate change Developmental plasticity Transgenerational plasticity Parental effects Thermal ecology and evolution Impacts of environmental change to marine species
Research Disciplines
Socio-Economic Objectives
  • 2021 - Emerging Leader in Marine Science Award, Australian Marine Sciences Association
  • 2017 - Australian Society of Fish Biology Early Career Excellence Award
  • 2016 - Australian Institute of Policy and Science Young Tally Poppy of Queensland Science Award
  • 2013 - Virginia Chadwick Award for Excellence in Scientific Publishing
  • 2012 - Winston Churchill Fellowship: Dr Dorothea Sanders and Irene Lee
  • 2011 - Virginia Chadwick Award for Excellence in Scientific Publishing
  • 2013 to 2016 - Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney
  • 2008 to 2011 - CSIRO Marine Climate Impact and Adaptation Flagship Student Fellowship

These are the most recent publications associated with this author. To see a detailed profile of all publications stored at JCU, visit ResearchOnline@JCU. Hover over Altmetrics badges to see social impact.

Journal Articles

ResearchOnline@JCU stores 53+ research outputs authored by A/PROF Jennifer Donelson from 2008 onwards.

Current Funding

Current and recent Research Funding to JCU is shown by funding source and project.

Australian Research Council - Discovery - Future Fellowships

Phenotypic and adaptive responses to environmental change

Indicative Funding
$710,470 over 4 years
Projecting the response of species to future environmental change is essential for appropriate human management and conservation strategies. However, we currently lack knowledge on whether populations differ in their capacity to respond to climate change. This project will explore the capacity for various populations of reef fish to acclimate and adapt to ocean warming across generations and between populations. This project will also explore whether short term heatwave experience results in any adaptive benefits.
Jennifer Donelson (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)
acclimation; Adaptation; Fish; Plasticity; Pomacentridae

Australian Society for Fish Biology - Michael Hall Student Innovation Award

Incorporating evolutionary perspective into conservation: An assessment of local adaptation across the range of a coral reef fish

Indicative Funding
$1,000 over 1 year
The aims of this research project are to gain an increased understanding of how different populations across the species? range of Acanthochromis polyacanthus will respond to ocean warming. Specifically, I will 1) determine the levels of local adaptation across three different regions within the species range to reveal the thermal performance landscape, and 2) identify cellular mechanisms that underlie adaptive difference between populations. This research will allow identification of populations and/or reef regions that have increased adaptive ability and could be potential targets for conservation action.
Elliott Schmidt, Jennifer Donelson and Gergely Torda (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)
Local adaptation; Coral reef fish; Climate Change; Ocean warming; Enzymes; Thermal performance

Ecological Society of Australia - Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment

Incorporating evolutionary perspective into wildlife conservation: An assessment of local adaptation, genetic differentiation, and heritability in a reef fish (Acanthaochromis polyacanthus)

Indicative Funding
$6,695 over 2 years
For many sedentary organisms with low dispersal ability, response to climate change depends on their capacity for local adaptation and phenotypic plasticity to maintain populations in changing environmental conditions. These evolutionary processes may vary across populations, resulting in uneven responses to changes within a species? range. To understand a species? evolutionary trajectory under climate change it is important to quantify the magnitude of local adaptation, genetic differentiation, heritability, and phenotypic plasticity in populations throughout its range. This project aims to understand how these evolutionary processes vary across a latitudinal gradient in a reef fish (spiny chromis damselfish; Acanthochromis polyacanthus).
Elliott Schmidt, Jennifer Donelson and Gergely Torda (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)
Acclimation; Phenotypic plasticity; Climate change; Adaptation; Ocean warming

SeaWorld Research and Rescue Foundation Inc - Research Grant

Exploring the nexus between behaviour and physiology of coal reef fishes in a warming world

Indicative Funding
$39,887 over 3 years
With 15 or the warmest 16 years on record having occurred since 2001, mankind is already witnessing the devastating effects of rising ocean temperatures on coral reef ecosystems. This project will improve the accuracy of climate-sensitivity foecasts for key reef fisheries species by asking: can reef fishes use behaviour to buffer the effects of ocean warming? We go beyond conventional lab-based testing of species' thermal tolerances, utilizing advances in biotelemetry technology to obtain field measures of thermal ecology, and testing for thermal physiological plasticity over relevant timescales. Our research is the first in the world to explore the possibility of behavioural thermoregulation in reef fishes, and will provde an enhanced understanding of the impacts of climate change on reef ecosystems.
Jennifer Donelson and Rebecca Fox (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, University of Technology and Sydney)
Global Warming; thermal preference; Behavioural Thermoregulation; physiological plasticity

SeaWorld Research and Rescue Foundation Inc - Research Grant

Battle of the sexes in a warming ocean ? which parent has the greatest impact?

Indicative Funding
$18,051 over 1 year
Rising sea temperature poses a significant threat to coral reefs and their inhabitants. By 2050 ? 2100, sea surface temperature of coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, is expected to increase by 1.5?C (IPCC 2007; 2013). While current populations of reef fish suffer when exposed short-term to elevated temperatures, future warming will occur over numerous generations for most species. Research has shown that the performance of fish improves when their parents also experience warmer conditions (known as transgenerational acclimation). The next key question is what combination of parental experience is required to obtain improved performance in the next generation (i.e. only mothers, fathers, or both parents)? This information will directly enhance our ability to predict generational rates of acclimation, especially where mating pairs are formed by individuals of diverse ages. As well as gain valuable insight into the mechanisms behind acclimation.
Philip Munday, Jennifer Donelson and Rachel Spinks (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies)
Climate change; ocean warming; Parental Effects; Coral Reef; Reef Fish; reproduction

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology - Technology's Competititve Research Grant Program-Round 3 (CRG3)

Transcriptional program and the epigenome of transgenerational acclimation in reef fishes

Indicative Funding
$631,579 over 3 years
Transgenerational acclimation is a form of non-genetic inheritance in which the environmental conditions experienced by one-generation influences the performance of future generations in that environment. New studies show that the performance of juvenile fish at higher water temperatures is significantly improved when their parents also experienced the warmer temperature. However, the molecular mechanisms responsible for transgenerational thermal acclimation, and how it is controlled, are currently unknown. Genomic DNA methylation is a form of epigenetic inheritance that cells use to control gene expression, and recent evidence suggests that genome methylation can be driven by external signals in cells after birth as well as in adult cells. This raises the intriguing possibility that DNA methylation can serve as a mechanism for genomes to rapidly adapt to changing environments. Here we propose a unique multi-generational manipulative experiment for a common coral reef fish, Acanthochromis polyacanthus, with genome-wide measurements of gene expression and DNA methylation. Using an integrative analysis, we seek to identify molecular pathways responsible for transgenerational acclimation to rising ocean temperatures and to test the hypothesis that genomic DNA methylation serves as a central mechanism mediating transgenerational acclimation to climate change.
Philip Munday, Jennifer Donelson, T Ravasi and T Berumen (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, College of Science & Engineering and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology)
Climate Change; acclimation; Adaptation; coral reef; Marine Fish; Genomics

Advisory Accreditation: I can be on your Advisory Panel as a Primary or Secondary Advisor.

These Higher Degree Research projects are either current or by students who have completed their studies within the past 5 years at JCU. Linked titles show theses available within ResearchOnline@JCU.

  • Incorporating evolutionary perspectives into conservation: an assessment of local adaptation, phenotypic plasticity, and interpopuation hybridization in a reef fish (Acanthochromis ployacanthus) (PhD , Primary Advisor)
  • Establishing how the Nature of Environmental Change Influences Phenotypic and Adaptive outcomes (PhD , Primary Advisor)
  • The Effect of Ocean Warming on the Behaviour and Fitness of Post-settlement Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster cf. solaris) (PhD , Secondary Advisor)
  • Do the effects of multiple environmental stressors depend on the timing of experience across generations? (Masters , Primary Advisor)

These are the most recent metadata records associated with this researcher. To see a detailed description of all dataset records, visit Research Data Australia.


The map shows research collaborations by institution from the past 7 years.
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  • 5+ collaborations
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  • 1 collaboration
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