A species’ response to thermal stress is an essential physiological trait that can determine occurrence and temporal succession in nature, including response to climate change. Environmental temperature affects zooplankton performance by altering life-spans and population growth rates, but the molecular mechanisms underlying these alterations are largely unknown. To compare temperature-related demography, we performed cross-temperature life-table experiments in closely related heat-tolerant and heat-sensitive Brachionus rotifer species that occur in sympatry. Within these same populations, we examined the genetic basis of physiological variation by comparing gene expression across increasing temperatures. We found significant cross-species and cross-temperature differences in heat response, with the heat-sensitive species adopting a strategy of high survival and low population growth, while the heat-tolerant followed an opposite strategy. Comparative transcriptomic analyses revealed both shared and opposing responses to heat. Most notably, expression of heat shock proteins (hsps) is strikingly different in the two species. In both species, hsp responses mirrored differences in population growth rates, showing that hsp genes are likely a key component of a species’ adaptation to different temperatures. Temperature induction caused opposing patterns of expression in further functional categories such as energy, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, and in genes related to ribosomal proteins. In the heat-sensitive species, elevated temperatures caused up-regulation of genes related to induction of meiotic division as well as genes responsible for post-translational histone modifications. This work demonstrates the sweeping reorganizations of biological functions that accompany temperature adaptation in these two species and reveals potential molecular mechanisms that might be activated for adaptation to global warming.