Jessica is originally from southeastern Wisconsin (USA), where in 2008, she earned her Bachelors degree in Biology and Psychology from University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. In 2012, she earned her Graduate Diploma from James Cook University (JCU, Australia), where she studied the effects of ocean acidification and increased sea surface temperatures on the behaviour of coral reef fishes. In 2017, she was awarded her PhD from JCU, where she studied the adaptive and neural basis of pair bonding in coral reef butterflyfishes (f. Chaetodontidae). In 2018, she was awarded an Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University. Under the co-supervision of Prof. Lauren O'Connell (primary), and Prof. Nirao Shah (co-sponsor), she studies the deep evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding neural mechanisms. She hopes to make a career of building a scientific and public appreciation for the extent to which pro-sociality and underlying mechanisms are shared across vertebrates.

Honors & Awards

  • Postgraduate Diploma of Research Methods-graduated with honors, James Cook University, Australia (2012)

Boards, Advisory Committees, Professional Organizations

  • member, Graduate Women in Science (2013 - Present)
  • member, Australian Coral Reef Society (2012 - Present)
  • member, Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (2015 - 2016)
  • member, International Society for Behavioral Ecology (2014 - 2016)
  • member, Society for Animal Behavior (2014 - 2016)

Professional Education

  • Doctor of Philosophy, James Cook University (2017)
  • Diploma, James Cook University (2011)
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (2008)

Stanford Advisors

Current Research and Scholarly Interests

I am broadly interested in how pro-sociality and underlying neural mechanisms have evolved across animals. Currently, I seek to determine whether the ~450 MYO history of vertebrate pair bonding has relied on repeatedly co-opting similar neural mechanisms.
To test this idea, I use an integrative approach that couples comparative with functional neuroethology.


  • Evolution of vertebrate pair bonding mechanisms, Stanford University

    Social bonds, such as pair bonds are critical for mental health and life longevity in humans. Therefore, understanding how the brain promotes these important relationships is necessary for developing effective therapeutic strategies. Decades of research on a single model system, Microtus voles, has been invaluable for informing the neural basis of pair bonding. However, in order to identify highly generalizable and thus translatable principals, underlying mechanisms must be compared across phylogenically diverse taxa in which pair boning has independently evolved. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 MYO evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding neural mechanisms, and aims to identify fundamental principals that may inform the human condition.


    California, USA; Western Australia; Saudi Arabia


    • Jessica Nowicki, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biology, School of Humanities and Sciences
    • Lauren O'Connell, Assistant Professor of Biology, Stanford University
    • Nirao Shah, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (Major Laboratories and Clinical Translational Neurosciences Incubator) and of Neurobiology, Stanford University
    • Darren Coker, Research Scientist, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
    • Mike Gardner, Associate Professor in Biodiversity, Flinders University/South Australian Museum

All Publications

  • Differences in diet and biotransformation enzymes of coral reef butterflyfishes between Australia and Hawaii. Comparative biochemistry and physiology. Toxicology & pharmacology : CBP Maldonado, A., Nowicki, J., Pratchett, M. S., Schlenk, D. 2018


    Many reef fishes are capable of feeding on chemically-defended benthic prey, such as soft (alcyonarian) corals; however, little is known about the molecular mechanisms that underpin allelochemical biotransformation and detoxification. Butterflyfishes (Chaetodon: Chaetdontidae) are a useful group for comparatively exploring links between biotransformation enzymes and diet, because they commonly feed on chemically defended prey. Moreover, diets of some species vary among geographic locations. This study compares gene expression, protein and enzymatic activity of key detoxification enzymes (cytochrome P450 (CYP) 2, 3, epoxide hydrolase, glutathione transferase and UDP-glucuronosyltransferase) in livers of four coral-feeding butterflyfish species between Australia and Hawaii, where these fishes differ in diet composition. For C. kleinii, C. auriga, and C. unimaculatus, we found higher CYP2 and CYP3 levels were linked to more allelochemically rich diets in Australia relative to Hawaii. For C. lunulatus from Hawaii CYP2 and CYP3 levels were 1 to 20-fold higher than C. lunulatus from Australia, possibly due to their predominant prey in Hawaii (Porities spp.) being richer in allelochemicals. UGT, GST and epoxide hydrolase varied between species and location and did not correspond to any specific dietary preference or location. Higher levels of CYP2 and CYP3A isozymes in species that feed on allelochemically-rich prey suggest that these biotransformation enzymes may be involved in detoxification of coral dietary allelochemicals in butterflyfishes.

    View details for PubMedID 30368017

  • Diurnal foraging of a wild coral-reef fish Parapercis australis in relation to late-summer temperatures JOURNAL OF FISH BIOLOGY Chase, T., Nowicki, J. P., Coker, D. J. 2018; 93 (1): 153–58


    In situ observations of diurnal foraging behaviour of a common site-attached shallow reef mesopredator Parapercis australis during late summer, revealed that although diet composition was unaffected by seawater temperature (range 28.3-32.4°C), feeding strikes and distance moved increased with temperature up to 30.5°C, beyond which they sharply declined, indicative of currently living beyond their thermal optimum. Diel feeding strikes and distance moved were however, tightly linked to ambient temperature as it related to the population's apparent thermal optimum, peaking at times when it was approached (1230 and 1700 h) and declining up to four fold at times deviating from this. These findings suggest that although this population may be currently living beyond its thermal optimum, it copes by down regulating energetically costly foraging movement and consumption and under future oceanic temperatures, these behavioural modifications are probably insufficient to avoid deleterious effects on population viability without the aid of long-term acclimation or adaptation.

    View details for PubMedID 29873403

  • Pair bond endurance promotes cooperative food defense and inhibits conflict in coral reef butterflyfish SCIENTIFIC REPORTS Nowicki, J. P., Walker, S. W., Coker, D. J., Hoey, A. S., Nicolet, K. J., Pratchett, M. S. 2018; 8: 6295


    Pair bonding is generally linked to monogamous mating systems, where the reproductive benefits of extended mate guarding and/or of bi-parental care are considered key adaptive functions. However, in some species, including coral reef butterflyfishes (f. Chaetodonitidae), pair bonding occurs in sexually immature and homosexual partners, and in the absence of parental care, suggesting there must be non-reproductive adaptive benefits of pair bonding. Here, we examined whether pair bonding butterflyfishes cooperate in defense of food, conferring direct benefits to one or both partners. We found that pairs of Chaetodon lunulatus and C. baronessa use contrasting cooperative strategies. In C. lunulatus, both partners mutually defend their territory, while in C. baronessa, males prioritize territory defence; conferring improvements in feeding and energy reserves in both sexes relative to solitary counterparts. We further demonstrate that partner fidelity contributes to this function by showing that re-pairing invokes intra-pair conflict and inhibits cooperatively-derived feeding benefits, and that partner endurance is required for these costs to abate. Overall, our results suggest that in butterflyfishes, pair bonding enhances cooperative defense of prey resources, ultimately benefiting both partners by improving food resource acquisition and energy reserves.

    View details for PubMedID 29674741

  • Variation in social systems within Chaetodon butterflyfishes, with special reference to pair bonding PLOS ONE Nowicki, J. P., O'Connell, L. A., Cowman, P. F., Walker, S. W., Coker, D. J., Pratchett, M. S. 2018; 13 (4): e0194465


    For many animals, affiliative relationships such as pair bonds form the foundation of society and are highly adaptive. Animal systems amenable for comparatively studying pair bonding are important for identifying underlying biological mechanisms, but mostly exist in mammals. Better establishing fish systems will enable comparison of pair bonding mechanisms across taxonomically distant lineages that may reveal general underlying mechanistic principles. We examined the utility of wild butterflyfishes (f: Chaetodontidae; g: Chaetodon) for comparatively studying pair bonding. Using stochastic character mapping, we provide the first analysis of the evolutionary history of butterflyfish sociality, revealing that pairing is ancestral, with at least seven independent transitions to gregarious grouping and solitary behavior since the late Miocene. We then formally verified social systems in six sympatric and wide-spread species representing a clade with one ancestrally reconstructed transition from paired to solitary grouping at Lizard Island, Australia. In situ observations of the size, selective affiliation and aggression, fidelity, and sex composition of social groups confirmed that Chaetodon baronessa, C. lunulatus, and C. vagabundus are predominantly pair bonding, whereas C. rainfordi, C. plebeius, and C. trifascialis are predominantly solitary. Even in the predominantly pair bonding species, C. lunulatus, a proportion of adults (15%) are solitary. Importantly, inter- and intra-specific differences in social systems do not co-vary with other previously established attributes, including parental care. Hence, the proposed butterflyfish populations are promising for inter- and intra-species comparative analyses of pair bonding and its mechanistic underpinnings. Avenues for further developing the system are proposed, including determining whether the aforementioned utility of these species applies across their geographic disruptions.

    View details for PubMedID 29641529

  • Influence of coral cover and structural complexity on the accuracy of visual surveys of coral-reef fish communities. Journal of fish biology Coker, D. J., Nowicki, J. P., Graham, N. A. 2017; 90 (6): 2425-2433


    Using manipulated patch reefs with combinations of varying live-coral cover (low, medium and high) and structural complexity (low and high), common community metrics (abundance, diversity, richness and community composition) collected through standard underwater visual census techniques were compared with exhaustive collections using a fish anaesthetic (clove oil). This study showed that reef condition did not influence underwater visual census estimates at a community level, but reef condition can influence the detectability of some small and cryptic species and this may be exacerbated if surveys are conducted on a larger scale.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/jfb.13298

    View details for PubMedID 28425096

  • Indirect benefits of high coral cover for non-corallivorous butterflyfishes CORAL REEFS Pratchett, M. S., Blowes, S. A., Coker, D., Kubacki, E., Nowicki, J., Hoey, A. S. 2015; 34 (2): 665-672
  • Body condition of the coral-dwelling fish Dascyllus aruanus (Linnaeus 1758) following host colony bleaching ENVIRONMENTAL BIOLOGY OF FISHES Coker, D. J., Nowicki, J. P., Pratchett, M. S. 2015; 98 (2): 691-695
  • Butterflyfishes as a model group for reef fish ecology: important and emerging research topics Biology of Butterflyfishes edited by Pratchett, M. S., et al CRC Press. 2014; 1: 310–333
  • Interactive effects of elevated temperature and CO2 on foraging behavior of juvenile coral reef fish JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL MARINE BIOLOGY AND ECOLOGY Nowicki, J. P., Miller, G. M., Munday, P. L. 2012; 412: 46-51