PalmTraits 1.0

Functional traits are characteristics of individuals, populations and species that determine their fitness, via their impacts on growth, survival and reproduction. Examples are leaf size, leaf thickness, fruit size, wood density…. Traits are great proxies for the ecology of species, and used extensively in macroecological and macroevolutionary research. PalmTraits 1.0 provides species-level trait data for all ca. 2500 palm (Arecaceae) species worldwide. The database is available from Dryad. The article in which we present the data was published in Scientific Data.

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PalmTraits 1.0, Figure from the publication in the journal Scientific Data

What else did we (I and my collaborators) do with these data? For example, using average fruit size of palm species, we asked questions such as: Do large fruits co-occur with large-bodied animals that disperse these fruits? And: Does fruit size influence speciation rates via the interaction between fruits and fruit-eating and seed-dispersing animals? What happened to palms with large, ‘megafaunal’ fruits since the Quaternary extinctions of large-bodied animals?

Answers to these questions can be found in these publications:

Onstein, R.E. , Baker,W.J., Couvreur, T.L.P. , Faurby, S., Herrera-Alsina, L., Svenning, J.-C. & Kissling, W.D. (2018). “To adapt or go extinct? The fate of megafaunal palm fruits under past global change”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 285: 20180882. [ABSTRACT] [PRESS RELEASE]

OnsteinR.E. , Baker,W.J., Couvreur, T.L.P. , Faurby, S. , Svenning, J.-C. & Kissling, W.D. (2017). “Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms”. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:1903–1911. [ABSTRACT] [DATA & CODE] [PRESS RELEASE] [BLOG]

However, the data can be used to answer many more questions, related to the ecology and evolution of palms. Species differ not only in their fruit sizes, but also in, for example, fruit colours, leaf structures and sizes, the presence or absence of spines, growth forms, plant height. In combination with distribution data and a phylogeny, we can now answer questions such as: when did these traits evolve? Where do species with these traits occur? Where do we find the most colourful fruits, and why? Where do species occur that have spines? Etcetera…

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: 

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 (; for research project questions, contact Dr. Renske Onstein (

10 things I hate about being a scientist (but I love it)

10 things I hate about being a scientist:

– I hate those days when I realise that what I do is most likely totally useless and will probably never lead to the greater purpose I have in mind for my research;

– I hate the struggle to find the right words (to explain what I do, for example) because jargon is flying through my mind (and watching over my shoulder, correcting me);

– I hate it that some scientists think they are better than others, because they have the ability to make other people cry;

– I hate it that I cannot have a conversation about anything else than science or career anymore. I do not even enjoy talking about anything else anymore, sometimes… ;

– I hate it that my income is very low relative to my non-scientist friends. I’m joking – I do not actually mind that 🙂 ;

– I hate the still existing gender bias in academia;

– I hate meeting great people but then they leave again;

– I hate (and enjoy at the same time) not to know where I will be in a year from now;

– I hate negative reviews because they make me feel even more insecure about my research and where I am trying to get with my life (and career);

– I hate it when coming home after a long day of work and I fall asleep immediately. Where has my life gone?

After all this has been said, I still do not want to do anything else than science, because those short moments I do feel happy about my results and their impact are very rewarding. And if I compare doing science to any other purpose in life, this is probably one with the least egocentric element in it. And who knows – maybe one day I will make the difference and save our planet from extinction….



frugivory in the Atlantic rainforest, Brazil

I am currently doing a postdoc in the Sauquet lab at the Université Paris-Sud. In collaboration with Daniel Kissling, Hélène Morlon, Thomas Couvreur, Lars Chatrou and Hervé Sauquet, I study “Frugivory, functional traits and the diversification of a tropical angiosperm family: Annonaceae (Magnoliales)”.

For a 1 minute summary of the project- watch this video.

In short –

Frugivory (i.e. fruit-eating and seed dispersal by animals) is ubiquitous in tropical ecosystems, but the role that frugivores have played in the macroevolution of species-rich tropical plant families remains largely unexplored. This project will investigate how plant traits relevant to frugivory (e.g. fruit size, fruit color, fruit shape, understory/canopy growth form, etc.) are distributed within the angiosperm family of custard apples (Annonaceae), how this relates to diversification rates, and whether and how it coincides with the global biogeographic distribution of vertebrate frugivores (birds, bats, primates, other frugivorous mammals) and their ecological traits (e.g. diet specialization, body size, flight ability, etc.). Annonaceae are particularly suitable because they are well studied, species-rich (ca. 2400 species), characteristic in all tropical rainforests, and dispersed by most groups of vertebrate seed dispersers. Using a phylogenetic framework and functional trait and species distribution data we will test (i) how fruit trait variability relates to phylogeny and other aspects of plant morphology (e.g. leaf size, plant height, growth form, floral traits) and animal dispersers and their traits, (ii) to what extent interaction-relevant plant traits are related to diversification rates, and (iii) whether geographic variability in fruit traits correlates with the biogeographic distribution of animal dispersers and their traits.