The enhanced synthesis of heat-shock proteins (hsps), called the heat-shock (or stress) response, is activated when environmental stress denatures proteins. Hsp synthesis is activated at the upper temperatures of an organism's thermal range and is therefore thought to be critical for enhancing thermal tolerance limits in ectothermic animals. Here I show that the two temperate sister species T. brunnea and T. montereyi that occupy the subtidal and low-intertidal zone differ from the low- to mid-intertidal T. funebralis (and the subtropical mid-intertidal T. rugosa) in (i) heat tolerance, (ii) the onset temperature of their main hsp, hsp70 (70 kDa), (iii) the temperature of maximal hsp70 synthesis, (iv) the upper temperature of hsp synthesis, and (v) the recovery from a thermal stress typical for the mid-intertidal zone. A regulatory model in which hsps themselves regulate their own transcription and synthesis through a negative autoregulatory feedback mechanism can explain acclimation-induced but not interspecific variation in the onset temperature of hsp70 synthesis. Transplanting species across their vertical distribution limits showed that interspecific differences in the stress response are likely to prevent species occurring lower from inhabiting sites higher in the rocky intertidal zone. Endogenous levels of a hsp of a molecular mass of 72 kDa, hsp72, changed little with heat stress in a species' native thermal environment. The results therefore confirm the importance of interspecific differences in the stress response for setting limits to an organism's thermal environment. However, the role of hsps as short-term indicators of sublethal heat stress within a species' native thermal environment may be limited without a better understanding of their functional and regulatory characteristics.