I’m looking for a technician!

I am looking for a technician to join the Evolution & Adaptation lab at iDiv as soon as possible. For more information about the position and how to apply (deadline 9th of July 2018), see here. For additional questions please send me an e-mail: onsteinre@gmail.com. The technician will play an important role in the Madagascar palm seed dispersal project, including the possibility to join the fieldwork. Other projects of interest can be developed as well.

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Illustration: William Snyder @deviantart.com (Pleistocene Madagascar). For a nice blog on this by Pedro Jordano see here: https://pedrojordano.net/2016/12/30/megafauna-in-madagascar/

Biological-Technical Assistant

(initially limited until 30. September 2020) Salary: Entgeltgruppe 6 TV-L


  • Combining (botanical) data sources (such as monographs and floras) to build databases for biodiversity data (using Access or SQL)
  • Measuring functional plant traits from herbaria or fresh sample material
  • General laboratory organization (incl. setting up a new laboratory) and laboratory maintenance
  • Planning and conducting molecular and cell biology experiments
  • Analysis of generated data and preparation of suitable presentations


  • successful professional qualification as Biological-Technical Assistant or an equivalent degree
  • hands-on experience in molecular and cell biology techniques (DNA/RNA isolation, PCR, real-time PCR, cloning) would be preferable
  • experience in building databases would be preferable
  • very good computer skills (MS Windows, MS Office etc.)
  • good spoken and written English skills
  • strong team-player, but can also work independently
  • very good work organization and reliability
  • experienced to work in interdisciplinary and international teams

Looking for a PhD student!

I am looking for a PhD student to work on seed dispersal, connectivity and genomics of palms with megafaunal fruits on Madagascar – the position can be started as soon as possible, and the student will be located at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) in Leipzig, Germany.

Applications are accepted until 30th June 2018. To apply, see here: https://www.idiv.de/about_idiv/career.html 

Or download the advertisement here.

A bit more background….

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Extinct megafauna on Madagascar, image by VELIZAR SIMEONOVSKI

Madagascar harbours exceptional biodiversity, but this tropical hotspot also faces increasing threat from human activities and climate change. Plants with large, ‘megafaunal’ fruits are common across the flora of Madagascar, especially within the palm (Arecaceae) family. However, Pleistocene extinctions of large-bodied ‘megafaunal’ fruit-eating and seed-dispersing animals (such as giant lemurs) may have hindered the dispersal of taxa with megafaunal fruits. In this project we aim to investigate the micro- and macroevolutionary consequences of dispersal limitation for megafaunal-fruited palms on Madagascar, using a comparative framework. Specifically, we aim to (i) identify genomic signatures of dispersal limitation in megafaunal-fruited palm populations, (ii) reconstruct demographic history and identify historical genetic bottlenecks in these species, and (iii) evaluate whether these species may be adapting to dispersal by smaller-bodied frugivores, by evolving smaller fruits with smaller seeds. This project integrates the fields of plant evolution, phylogeography, and plant-frugivore interaction ecology. It will be in collaboration with researchers from Kew Botanical Gardens, UK (Dr. Bill Baker), Aarhus University, Denmark (Dr. Wolf Eiserhardt), the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Dr. Daniel Kissling) and Botanic Garden of the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany (Dr. Wolfgang Stuppy), among others.

Job description:
  • collecting genetic samples from palm populations on Madagascar, and measuring their functional traits;
  • identifying Malagasy frugivore communities and their functional traits;
  • using novel genomic techniques (e.g. RAD sequencing) to infer connectivity, demographic history and phylogeographical patterns;
  • writing and publishing of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals;
  • presentation of results at international conferences;
  • participation in iDiv’s PhD training program yDiv.

Applicants should hold a Master’s or equivalent degree in a related field of research (e.g. ecology, (molecular) biology, genetics, phylogenetics, phylogeography). The successful candidate should be innovative, able to work on his or her own initiative, and willing to spend several months in the field (Madagascar). Therefore prior experience with tropical fieldwork and basic living conditions is advantageous. Furthermore, the successful candidate should have prior experience using molecular techniques, preferably with bioinformatics for large genetic/genomic datasets. An interest in acquiring additional necessary skills (e.g. programming) for handling and statistically analyzing large datasets is essential. Candidates should be team-oriented and have strong organizational skills, in order to manage this collaborative research project within an international consortium. Excellent English communication skills (speaking and writing) are required. We seek candidates with an independent mind and the ambition to publish in internationally leading journals.

Applications are accepted until 30th June 2018, the applicant is expected to start as soon as possible, but latest by September 2018.

For queries on the application process, please contact Dr. Nicole Sachmerda-Schulz (nicole.sachmerda-schulz@idiv.de); for research project questions, contact Dr. Renske Onstein (onsteinre@gmail.com).

Start at iDiv!

After moving all our stuff from our lovely apartment in Amsterdam to our new place in Leipzig, Germany, I am ready to start my job as junior research group leader at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) today.

Get in touch for questions, (student) projects, etcetera! (e-mail: onsteinre@gmail.com)

Media Release:

Interview: https://www.idiv.de/en/groups_and_people/core_groups/evolution_and_adaptation/interview_ro.html

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New book: The Biology of Mediterranean-type Ecosystems

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A while ago, David Ackerly, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, asked me to jointly write a case study for a book on ‘The Biology of Mediterranean-type Ecosystems’. Now, several years later, I’m happy to announce that the book is published, and can be ordered here. Editors Karen Esler, Anna Jacobsen, and Brandon Pratt have done a great job. The book integrates a broad range of subjects important to MTEs, including climate, geology, physiology, ecology, and conservation.

Our case study specifically addresses the assembly of the five mediterranean-type floras, considering and comparing the processes of convergence, exaptation and evolutionary ‘predisposition’. As shown in the figure below, we could distinguish three hypotheses (H1-H3) for the occurrence of close relatives sharing functional traits matching a mediterranean climate (MTC). These are illustrated on a phylogenetic tree. Adaptation refers to the evolution of traits in response to MTC, whereas exaptation refers to the evolution of traits under another selective regime, which then become adaptive under MTC.

  • H1: Exaptive or adaptive evolution of traits to MTC in one region, followed by long-distance dispersal to another region.
  • H2: Exaptive evolution of traits and long-distance dispersal prior to appearance of MTC and independent sorting of taxa from each continent into the respective regions.
  • H3: Independent and parallel adaptive evolution of traits from common ancestors in response to MTC after dispersal to the respective regions.

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I’m planning to test these three hypotheses in some of my future work on MTEs.

Back from maternity leave – and starting a new job at iDiv

Scientists also reproduce. In fact, I just became mother to James Coos Barratt, and I spent the last 16 weeks on maternity leave. This means a break from science, something quite difficult for young, ambitious (female) scientists. The reason is that their work will lag behind and the opinion most academics share is that they cannot afford to do so because of strong competition in the field to eventually gain a permanent position. So I decided to take this opportunity to promote motherhood in academia! It is, and should be, possible to have children as an academic. In fact, it’s wonderful as a biologist to see and feel how something so complex can develop inside you, from a single cell into a human-being, all programmed so precisely in time. I would not want to miss that, ever.

This is my tiny human

But of course we- mothers, parents – do have a career break because of these tiny humans. There are ways to deal with this though, and Thaise Emilio directed my attention to this very helpful article about including career breaks in your CV, and Prisca Bauer to this article on how children can make you a better scientist. I’m not sure yet if this will bring me a permanent position, but it did not hinder me to become junior research group leader at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) in Leipzig, Germany.

I will start this new position, focusing on ‘evolution and adaptation‘ in June 2018. I am currently looking for a PhD student and a technician and will advertise these positions very soon.

New article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution

rainforest Borneo2 editBy dispersing the seeds of plants, fruit-eating animals contribute to the possibility of increased plant speciation and thus biodiversity. These are the findings of our study published on Monday, 23 October (2017) in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The article is available here, and I wrote a blog post on the Nature community website. Other outreach is available from here (in English) and here (in Dutch). In case you do not have access to the pdf, send me an email and I’ll happily send it to you (onsteinre@gmail.com).

My first time in the rain forest was during a gap year after high school, now more than 12 years ago. My parents had inspired me to follow in their footsteps, and when arriving at Bangkok airport, Thailand, I immediately took a bus up north, to see the remaining rain forest and its treasures with my own eyes.

Fruits of the palm Cryosophila warscewiczii

The diversity of plants and animals, the rain forest sounds and smells, as well as the alarming noise of chainsaws, all encouraged me to study biology in the years that followed. Palms, amongst the most charismatic and recognisable elements of rain forests, immediately caught my attention. They appeared in so many shapes and forms, and I found out that in total there are almost 2600 species worldwide. Their fruits in particular intrigued me: ranging from tiny red berries to huge brown ‘megafaunal’ fruits, up to 12 cm in length. Almost all palm species depend on fruit-eating animals such as chimpanzees, elephants or hornbills for their seed dispersal. Interestingly, palms with large, megafaunal fruits are exclusively dispersed by large-bodied mammals (‘megafauna’) that were highly diverse in the past, but have nowadays gone largely extinct. My trip to the rain forest inspired me to ask questions that ultimately led to his study. Why are palms so diverse? Has their intricate relationship with fruit-eating animals perhaps contributed to their diversification?

Although palms are extraordinarily species-rich, it remains unclear which factors are responsible for this diversity. I expected that the historical interaction of megafaunal-fruited palms with megafaunal animals likely reduced their speciation rate as compared to smaller-fruited palms, because of increased gene flow between populations, reducing the chances of geographic speciation. With this study we show that small fruit sizes do indeed increase speciation rates in palms. However, fruit size is not the only important driver of speciation: understory growth form and the colonisation of islands also contribute to increased speciation. The highest speciation rate was found for palms that are dispersed by birds and bats that are able to fly long distances across oceanic barriers, allowing them to colonise isolated islands in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

These results provide important insights for the future of biodiversity. The ongoing extinction of biodiversity worldwide has dramatic consequences for ecosystem functioning and human well-being. Our study emphasises the need to protect not just single species or habitats, but also to restore interactions between species, such as those between fruit-eating animals and their food plants, in areas where these have been lost.

Publication: https://www.nature.com/article…

R.E. Onstein, W.J. Baker, T.L.P. Couvreur, S. Faurby, J.-C.Svenning & W.D. Kissling: ‘Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms’, in Nature Ecology & Evolution (23 october 2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0348-7

rainforest Borneo edit

Greetings from… Yunnan, China

The University of Amsterdam wrote a short article about my work in Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) in Yunnan, China. Unfortunately it’s in Dutch, but I’ll give a short summary here.

Renske field China

In July and August I spent three weeks at XTBG and Kunming Institute of Botany to investigate the colour of palm fruits. XTBG is home to > 300 species of palms, and these show a high interspecific variation in fruit colour, ranging from black to purple to yellow, orange and red. Why does this variation in fruit colour exist? I hypothesise that fruit colour may be adaptive to frugivory – that is, fruit-eating and seed dispersal by animals.

Certain primates are ‘trichromatic’, which means that they can distinguish between red and green (such as humans) whereas other species of primates are dichromatic and can’t distinguish green from red (such as colourblind humans). These trichromatic primates can therefore easily detect reddish fruits against a background of greenish leaves in the rain forest, thereby having an advantage over dichromatic primates – which may have more difficulties finding food under these conditions. To test the hypothesis, I therefore expect that in areas where there is a dominance of trichromatic primates (such as chimpansees, gorillas and howler monkeys), palms with reddish fruits are also more common, as compared to areas dominated by dichromatic primates.

At XTBG I analysed the colour of palm fruits using a constant light source and software to quantify these colours (rather than a subjective classification of ‘green’, ‘red’ or ‘orange’). Together with my collaborators at the University of Amsterdam (my master student Daphne Vink, bachelor student Jorin Veen and Dr. Daniel Kissling) I aim to spend the coming months on analysing these data in a biogeographical context, using distribution and fruit colour data of > 2000 species of palms.

This research is important to better understand why fruits display such a wide range of colours – and to be able to predict how ongoing extinctions of primates may affect the future evolution of colours in the rain forest.


Besides sampling palms, I also presented my previous work at XTBG and Kunming, and had exciting discussions on ongoing work and future collaborations with the members of the Ecology and Biogeography group, led by Prof. Yaowu Xing.