Background: Rising temperatures and other environmental factors influenced by global climate change can cause increased physiological stress for many species and lead to range shifts or regional population extinctions. To advance the understanding of species’ response to change and establish links between individual and ecosystem adaptations, physiological reactions have to be compared between populations living in different environments. Although changes in expression of stress genes are relatively easy to quantify, methods for reliable comparison of the data remain a contentious issue. Using normalization algorithms and further methodological considerations, we compare cellular stress response gene expression levels measured by RT-qPCR after air exposure experiments among different subpopulations of three species of the intertidal limpet Nacella. Results: Reference gene assessment algorithms reveal that stable reference genes can differ among investigated populations and / or treatment groups. Normalized expression values point to differential defense strategies to air exposure in the investigated populations, which either employ a pronounced cellular stress response in the inducible Hsp70 forms, or exhibit a comparatively high constitutive expression of Hsps (heat shock proteins) while showing only little response in terms of Hsp induction. Conclusions: This study serves as a case study to explore the methodological prerequisites of physiological stress response comparisons among ecologically and phylogenetically different organisms. To improve the reliability of gene expression data and compare the stress responses of subpopulations under potential genetic divergence, reference gene stability algorithms are valuable and necessary tools. As the Hsp70 isoforms have been shown to play different roles in the acute stress responses and increased constitutive defenses of populations in their different habitats, these comparative studies can yield insight into physiological strategies of adaptation to environmental stress and provide hints for the prudent use of the cellular stress response as a biomarker to study environmental stress and stress adaptation of populations under changing environmental conditions.