Jessica Goodheart

Assistant Curator, Mollusca

Assistant Professor, Richard Gilder Graduate School

Principal Investigator, Institute for Comparative Genomics

Jessica Goodheart


  • BS, 2011, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
  • MS, 2013, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
  • PhD, 2017, University of Maryland, College Park, Department of Biology

Research Interests

My excitement for studying biology comes from the amazing diversity of body form and function in the ocean, particularly in marine invertebrates (animals without a backbone). Much of this diversity likely stems from the evolution of complex phenotypes, where features at different levels of biological organization (genes, cell types, tissues, etc) interact across evolution to create new and exciting physical structures, physiological mechanisms, and ecological interactions.

In my research, my goal is to uncover how evolution produces complex functions and characters by using both new and co-opted features at multiple levels of biological organization. In the Goodheart lab, we combine more traditional museum methods (natural history, taxonomy, and phylogenetic systematics work) with recent developmental, genomic, and cell and molecular techniques to better understand marine invertebrate evolution. 

Work in my lab largely focuses on marine mollusks (like snails, slugs, clams, and octopuses), particularly heterobranch gastropods that do not produce an adult shell (aka sea slugs). Many of these shell-less gastropods have evolved a number of interesting, and likely associated, defensive features in the absence of a shell, including the theft of defensive structures and chemicals from multiple types of prey. Nudibranchs, one particular group of beautiful and charismatic sea slugs, possess an unusual complex character: the ability to steal stinging organelles (nematocysts) from their cnidarian prey (like jellyfish and sea anemones).

The theft of external structures and chemicals is actually quite common across animals, but the ability to sequester nematocysts is unusual, in that no other defensive structures are known to be stolen and stored intracellularly. Our current model of the evolutionary steps required for nematocyst sequestration to evolve includes ecological, morphological, molecular, and genetic changes across large evolutionary time scales. 

Although nematocyst sequestration is my primary research focus, I am also interested in understanding a variety of complex phenotypes in marine invertebrate groups. I am particularly excited about those that require stolen features to function, such as chemical sequestration, chloroplast sequestration or intracellular symbiosis, and the theft of bioluminescence for defense. 

Goodheart Lab Website


Selected publications are listed below, or view the complete list of publications.

Goodheart, Jessica A., Barone, Vanessa, Lyons, Deirdre C. 2022. Movement and storage of nematocysts across development in the nudibranch Berghia stephanieae (Valdés, 2005). Frontiers in Zoology, 19:16. doi: 10.1186/s12983-022-00460-1.

Karmeinski, Dario, Meusemann, Karen, Goodheart, Jessica A., Schrödl, Michael, Martynov, Alexander, Korshunova, Tatiana, Wägele, Heike, Donath, Alexander. 2021. Transcriptomics sheds light on the relationships of cladobranch sea slugs (Heterobranchia, Gastropoda, Mollusca) - but fails to resolve the enigmatic genus Embletonia. BMC Ecology and Evolution, 21:226. doi: 10.1186/s12862-021-01944-0.

Goodheart Jessica A., Wägele Heike. 2020. Phylogenomic analysis and morphological data suggest left-right swimming behavior evolved prior to the origin of the pelagic Phylliroidae (Gastropoda: Nudibranchia). Organisms, Diversity, and Evolution, 20:657–667. doi: 10.1007/s13127-020-00458-9.

Miller, Sara E., Barrow, Lisa N., Ehlman, Sean M., Goodheart, Jessica A., Greiman, Stephen E., Lutz, Holly L., Misiewicz, Tracy M., Smith, Stephanie M., Tan, Milton, Thawley, Christopher J., Cook, Joseph A., Light, Jessica E. 2020. Building biological collections for the 21st century and beyond. BioScience, biaa069. doi: 10.1093/biosci/biaa069. [OSF Project] **EDITOR'S CHOICE

Goodheart Jessica A., Munoz J. David, Minsky Geetanjali, Brynjegard-Bialik Mira, N., Drummond Michael S., Fallon Timothy R., Schultz Darrin T., Weng Jing-Ke, Torres Elizabeth, Oakley Todd H. 2020. Laboratory culture of the California Sea Firefly Vargula tsujii (Ostracoda: Cypridinidae): Developing a model system for the evolution of marine bioluminescence. Scientific Reports, 10:10443. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-67209-w.

Goodheart, Jessica A., Bleidißel, Sabrina, Schillo, Dorothee, Ayres, Daniel L., Strong, Ellen E., Collins, Allen G., Cummings, Michael P. & Wägele, Heike. 2018. Comparative morphology and evolution of the cnidosac in Cladobranchia (Gastropoda: Heterobranchia: Nudibranchia). Frontiers in Zoology, 15:43. doi: 10.1186/s12983-018-0289-2. [OSF Project]

Goodheart, Jessica A., Bazinet, Adam L., Valdés, Ángel., Collins, Allen G. and Cummings, Michael P. 2017. Prey preference follows phylogeny: evolutionary dietary patterns within the marine gastropod group Cladobranchia (Gastropoda: Heterobranchia: Nudibranchia). BMC Evolutionary Biology, 17:221. doi: 10.1186/s12862-017-1066-0​. [OSF Project]

Goodheart, Jessica A. 2017. Insights into the systematics, phylogeny and evolution of Cladobranchia (Gastropoda: Heterobranchia). American Malacological Bulletin, 35:73-81. doi: 10.4003/006.035.0111.

Goodheart, Jessica A. & Bely, Alexandra E. 2017. Sequestration of nematocysts by divergent cnidarian predators: mechanism, function, and evolution. Invertebrate Biology, 136:75-91. doi: 10.1111/ivb.12154.

Goodheart, Jessica A., Ellingson, Ryan A., Vital, Xochitl G., Galvão Filho, Hilton C., McCarthy, Jennifer B., Medrano, Sabrina M., Bhave, Vishal J., García-Méndez, Kimberly, Jiménez, Lina M., López, Gina, Hoover, Craig A., Awbrey, Jaymes D., De Jesus, Jessika M., Gowacki, William, Krug, Patrick J. and Valdés, Ángel. 2016. Identification guide to the heterobranch sea slugs (Mollusca: Gastropoda) from Bocas del Toro, Panama. Marine Biodiversity Records, 9:56 doi: 10.1186/s41200-016-0048-z.

Goodheart, Jessica A., Bazinet, Adam L., Collins, Allen G., Cummings, Michael P. 2015. Relationships within Cladobranchia (Gastropoda: Nudibranchia) based on RNA-Seq data: An initial investigation. Royal Society Open Science, 2:150196. doi: 10.1098/rsos.150196. **COVER IMAGE [OSF Project]

Goodheart, Jessica A., Bazinet, Adam L., Collins, Allen G. and Cummings, Michael P. 2015. Phylogeny of Cladobranchia (Gastropoda: Nudibranchia): a total evidence analysis using DNA sequence data from public databases. Digital Repository at the University of Maryland. URI:


Teaching Experience

Assistant Professor, Richard Gilder Graduate School (2022-present)