Dr Renske Onstein




Biodiversity on Earth is rapidly disappearing due to global change. My research ambition is to understand the processes responsible for the origin, resilience and adaptability of biodiversity, to be able to predict future declines and preserve ecosystems and their functions.

During my PhD, I studied the role of functional traits during angiosperm radiations (the rapid accumulation of species in parts of the tree-of-life). For this I developed a conceptual framework and methodology to integrate large databases including fossils, phylogenetic and functional trait data, supplemented with my own collections from botanical surveys in South African and Australian hotspots. I was able to show that the evolutionary ‘match’ between traits and environments triggered explosive species radiations in certain groups, times and places, by increasing speciation rates or decreasing extinction rates. The generality of these results across large spatial (i.e. hotspots) and temporal scales, however, remains untested. By understanding the ultimate drivers of speciation and extinction, I hope to contribute to improved conservation of biodiversity.

After my PhD I obtained a Swiss grant to continue my research on evolutionary radiations at the Université Paris-Sud (France). This allowed me to integrate my knowledge on macro-evolution with spatial statistics linked to the distribution of diversity as a result of macro-ecological processes. I continued the development of this research line as a postdoc at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). I am passionate about communicating my research to a broader audience, in particular through the use of video.

For more information, visit my personal website: https://onsteinison.wordpress.com/

Scientific career


  • Jun 2018–Current
    Head of Evolution and Adaptation Research Group, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Germany.
  • Jun 2016–May 2018
    Postdoc at University of Amsterdam (UvA), Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
  • Aug 2015–May 2016
    Postdoc at Université Paris-Sud, Lab. Écologie, Systématique, Évolution (ESE), Orsay, France.
  • Mar 2011–Jun 2015
    PhD (with distinction) in Evolutionary Biology at the Institute of Systematic Botany, University of Zurich, Switzerland, supervised by Prof. H. Peter Linder. Thesis on ‘The role of plant functional traits in Cenozoic angiosperm radiations’.
  • Sep 2008–Feb 2011
    MSc Biology (with distinction), specialization Ecology, Wageningen University, the Netherlands. MSc thesis at the Biosystematics Group supervised by Dr. Freek T. Bakker and Dr. Robin van Velzen. Thesis on ‘The evolution of Rinorea (Violaceae) as host plant for Cymothoe (Nymphalidae): new insights from extended sampling of Ghanaian populations, and development of a new nuclear phylogenetic marker’.
  • Sep 2004–Jan 2008
    BSc Biology, specialization Ecology, Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands.



Tian, Qin, Stull, Gregory W., Kellermann, Jürgen, Medan, Diego, Nge, Francis J., Liu, Shui-Yin, Kates, Heather R., Soltis, Douglas E., Soltis, Pamela S., Guralnick, Robert P., Folk, Ryan A., Onstein, Renske E., Yi, Ting-Shuang

(2024): Rapid in situ diversification rates in Rhamnaceae explain the parallel evolution of high diversity in temperate biomes from global to local scales. New Phytologist

Lucas, M. S., Hensen, I., Barratt, C. D., Callaway, R. M., Durka, W., Lekberg, Y., Nagy, D. U., Onstein, R. E., Shah, M. A., van Dam, N. M., Thoma, A. E., Rosche, C.

(2024): Re-focusing sampling, design and experimental methods to assess rapid evolution by non-native plant species. Biological Invasions

Wölke, Friederike J. R., Cabral, Andressa, Lim, Jun Ying, Kissling, W. Daniel, Onstein, Renske E.

(2023): Africa as an evolutionary arena for large fruits. New Phytologist

Xu, Wu-Bing, Guo, Wen-Yong, Serra-Diaz, Josep M., Schrodt, Franziska, Eiserhardt, Wolf L., Enquist, Brian J., Maitner, Brian S., Merow, Cory, Violle, Cyrille, Anand, Madhur, Belluau, Michaël, Bruun, Hans Henrik, Byun, Chaeho, Catford, Jane A., Cerabolini, Bruno E. L., Chacón-Madrigal, Eduardo, Ciccarelli, Daniela, Cornelissen, J. Hans C., Dang-Le, Anh Tuan, de Frutos, Angel, Dias, Arildo S., Giroldo, Aelton B., Gutiérrez, Alvaro G., Hattingh, Wesley, He, Tianhua, Hietz, Peter, Hough-Snee, Nate, Jansen, Steven, Kattge, Jens, Komac, Benjamin, Kraft, Nathan J. B., Kramer, Koen, Lavorel, Sandra, Lusk, Christopher H., Martin, Adam R., Ma, Ke-Ping, Mencuccini, Maurizio, Michaletz, Sean T., Minden, Vanessa, Mori, Akira S., Niinemets, Ülo, Onoda, Yusuke, Onstein, Renske E., Peñuelas, Josep, Pillar, Valério D., Pisek, Jan, Pound, Matthew J., Robroek, Bjorn J. M., Schamp, Brandon, Slot, Martijn, Sun, Miao, Sosinski, Ênio E., Soudzilovskaia, Nadejda A., Thiffault, Nelson, van Bodegom, Peter M., van der Plas, Fons, Zheng, Jingming, Svenning, Jens-Christian, Ordonez, Alejandro

(2023): Global beta-diversity of angiosperm trees is shaped by Quaternary climate change. Science Advances

Velásquez-Puentes, Francisco J., Torke, Benjamin M., Barratt, Christopher D., Dexter, Kyle G., Pennington, Toby, Pezzini, Flávia Fonseca, Zizka, Alexander, Onstein, Renske E.

(2023): Pre-adaptation and adaptation shape trait-environment matching in the Neotropics. Global Ecology and Biogeography

Kahnt, Belinda, Theodorou, Panagiotis, Grimm-Seyfarth, Annegret, Onstein, Renske E.

(2023): When lizards shift to a more plant-based lifestyle: The macroevolution of mutualistic lizard-plant-interactions (Squamata: Sauria/Lacertilia). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution

Antonelli, Alexandre, Govaerts, Rafaël, Nic Lughadha, Eimear, Onstein, Renske E., Smith, Rhian J., Zizka, Alexander

(2023): Why plant diversity and distribution matter. New Phytologist

Ralimanana, H., Perrigo, A. L., Smith, R. J., Borrell, J. S., Faurby, S., Rajaonah, M. T., Randriamboavonjy, T., Vorontsova, M. S., Cooke, R. S. C., Phelps, L. N., Sayol, F., Andela, N., Andermann, T., Andriamanohera, A. M., Andriambololonera, S., Bachman, S. P., Bacon, C. D., Baker, W. J., Belluardo, F., Birkinshaw, C., Cable, S., Canales, N. A., Carrillo, J. D., Clegg, R., Clubbe, C., Crottini, A., Damasco, G., Dhanda, S., Edler, D., Farooq, H., de Lima Ferreira, P., Fisher, B. L., Forest, F., Gardiner, L. M., Goodman, S. M., Grace, O. M., Guedes, T. B., Hackel, J., Henniges, M. C., Hill, R., Lehmann, C. E. R., Lowry, P. P., Marline, L., Matos-Maraví, P., Moat, J., Neves, B., Nogueira, M. G. C., Onstein, R. E., Papadopulos, A. S. T., Perez-Escobar, O. A., Phillipson, P. B., Pironon, S., Przelomska, N. A. S., Rabarimanarivo, M., Rabehevitra, D., Raharimampionona, J., Rajaonary, F., Rajaovelona, L. R., Rakotoarinivo, M., Rakotoarisoa, A. A., Rakotoarisoa, S. E., Rakotomalala, H. N., Rakotonasolo, F., Ralaiveloarisoa, B. A., Ramirez-Herranz, M., Randriamamonjy, J. E. N., Randrianasolo, V., Rasolohery, A., Ratsifandrihamanana, A. N., Ravololomanana, N., Razafiniary, V., Razanajatovo, H., Razanatsoa, E., Rivers, M., Silvestro, D., Testo, W., Torres Jiménez, M. F., Walker, K., Walker, B. E., Wilkin, P., Williams, J., Ziegler, T., Zizka, A., Antonelli, A.

(2022): Madagascar's extraordinary biodiversity: Threats and opportunities. Science

Méndez, L., Viana, D. S., Alzate, A., Kissling, W. D., Eiserhardt, W. L., Rozzi, R., Rakotoarinivo, M. and Onstein, R. E.

(2022): Megafrugivores as fading shadows of the past: extant frugivores and the abiotic environment as the most important determinants of the distribution of palms in Madagascar. Ecography

Keller, A., Ankenbrand, M. J., Bruelheide, H., Dekeyzer, S., Enquist, B. J., Erfanian, M. B., Falster, D. S., Gallagher, R. V., Hammock, J., Kattge, J., Leonhardt, S. D., Madin, J. S., Maitner, B., Neyret, M., Onstein, R. E., Pearse, W. D., Poelen, J. H., Salguero-Gomez, R., Schneider, F. D., Tóth, A. B., Penone, C.

(2022): Ten (mostly) simple rules to future-proof trait data in ecological and evolutionary sciences. Methods in Ecology and Evolution

Zizka, A., Onstein, R. E., Rozzi, R., Weigelt, P., Kreft, H., Steinbauer, M. J., Bruelheide, H., Lens, F.

(2022): The evolution of insular woodiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Alzate, Adriana, Onstein, Renske E.

(2022): Understanding the relationship between dispersal and range size. Ecology Letters

Hagen, O., Skeels, A., Onstein, R. E., Jetz, W., Pellissier, L.

(2021): Earth history events shaped the evolution of uneven biodiversity across tropical moist forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Barratt, C. D., Lester, J. D., Gratton, P., Onstein, R. E., Kalan, A. K., McCarthy, M. S., Bocksberger, G., White, L. C., Vigilant, L., Dieguez, P., Abdulai, B., Aebischer, T., Agbor, A., Assumang, A. K., Bailey, E., Bessone, M., Buys, B., Carvalho, J. S., Chancellor, R., Cohen, H., Danquah, E., Deschner, T., Dongmo, Z. N., Doumbé, O. A., Dupain, J., Duvall, C. S., Eno-Nku, M., Etoga, G., Galat-Luong, A., Garriga, R., Gatti, S., Ghiurghi, A., Goedmakers, A., Granjon, A.-C., Hakizimana, D., Head, J., Hedwig, D., Herbinger, I., Hermans, V., Jones, S., Junker, J., Kadam, P., Kambi, M., Kienast, I., Kouakou, C. Y., N′Goran, K. P., Langergraber, K. E., Lapuente, J., Laudisoit, A., Lee, K. C., Maisels, F., Mirghani, N., Moore, D., Morgan, B., Morgan, D., Neil, E., Nicholl, S., Nkembi, L., Ntongho, A., Orbell, C., Ormsby, L. J., Pacheco, L., Piel, A. K., Pintea, L., Plumptre, A. J., Rundus, A., Sanz, C., Sommer, V., Sop, T., Stewart, F. A., Sunderland-Groves, J., Tagg, N., Todd, A., Ton, E., van Schijndel, J., VanLeeuwe, H., Vendras, E., Welsh, A., Wenceslau, J. F. C., Wessling, E. G., Willie, J., Wittig, R. M., Yoshihiro, N., Yuh, Y. G., Yurkiw, K., Boesch, C., Arandjelovic, M. and Kühl, H.

(2021): Quantitative estimates of glacial refugia for chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) since the Last Interglacial (120,000 BP). American Journal of Primatology

R. E. Onstein, D. N. Vink, J. Veen, C. D. Barratt, S. G. A. Flantua, S. A. Wich, W. D. Kissling

(2021): Understanding the relationship between fruit colour and primate vision requires multiple lines of evidence. A reply to Heymann & Fuzessy. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Alzate, A., Onstein, R. E., Etienne, R. S., Bonte, D.

(2020): The role of preadaptation, propagule pressure and competition in the colonization of new habitats. Oikos

Brink, H. t., Onstein, R. E., de Roos, A. M.

(2020): Habitat deterioration promotes the evolution of direct development in metamorphosing species. Evolution

do Nascimento, L. F., Guimarães Jr, P. R., Onstein, R. E., Kissling, W. D., Pires, M. M.

(2020): Associated evolution of fruit size, fruit color and spines in Neotropical palms. Journal of Evolutionary Biology

Nurk, N. M., Linder, H. P., Onstein, R. E., Larcombe, M. J., Hughes, C. E., Fernandez, L. P., Schluter, P. M., Valente, L., ..., Pirie, M. D.

(2020): Diversification in evolutionary arenas-Assessment and synthesis. Ecology and Evolution

Onstein, R. E., Vink, D. N., Veen, J., Barratt, C. D., Flantua, S. G. A., Wich, S. A., Kissling, W. D.

(2020): Palm fruit colours are linked to the broad-scale distribution and diversification of primate colour vision systems. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences

Flantua, S. G. A., O'Dea, A., Onstein, R. E., Giraldo, C., Hooghiemstra, H.

(2019): The flickering connectivity system of the north Andean páramos. Journal of Biogeography

Hagen, O., Vaterlaus, L., Albouy, C., Brown, A., Leugger, F., Onstein, R. E., de Santana, C. N., Scotese, C. R., Pellissier, L.

(2019): Mountain building, climate cooling and the richness of cold‐adapted plants in the Northern Hemisphere. Journal of Biogeography

Han, T.-S., Zheng, Q.-J., Onstein, R. E., Rojas-Andrés, B. M., Hauenschild, F., Muellner-Riehl, A. N., Xing, Y.-W.

(2019): Polyploidy promotes species diversification of Allium through ecological shifts. New Phytologist

Kissling, W. D., Balslev, H., Baker, W. J., Dransfield, J., Göldel, B., Lim, J. Y., Onstein, R. E., Svenning, J.-C.

(2019): PalmTraits 1.0, a species-level functional trait database of palms worldwide. Scientific Data

Nyman, T., R. E. Onstein, D. Silvestro, S. Wutke, A. Taeger, N. Wahlberg, S. M. Blank, T. Malm

(2019): The early wasp plucks the flower: disparate extant diversity of sawfly superfamilies (Hymenoptera: ‘Symphyta’) may reflect asynchronous switching to angiosperm hosts. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society

Onstein, R. E.

(2019): Darwin’s second ‘abominable mystery’: trait flexibility as the innovation leading to angiosperm diversity. New Phytologist

Onstein, R. E., Kissling, W. D., Chatrou, L. W., Couvreur, T. L. P., Morlon, H., Sauquet, H.

(2019): Which frugivory-related traits facilitated historical long-distance dispersal in the custard apple family (Annonaceae)?. Journal of Biogeography

Zhang, Q., Onstein, R. E., Little, S. A., Sauquet, H.

(2019): Estimating divergence times and ancestral breeding systems in Ficus and Moraceae. Annals of Botany

Barratt, C. D., Bwong, B. A., Jehle, R., Liedtke, H. C., Nagel, P., Onstein, R. E., Portik, D. M., Streicher, J. W., Loader, S. P.

(2018): Vanishing refuge? Testing the forest refuge hypothesis in coastal East Africa using genome-wide sequence data for seven amphibians. Molecular Ecology
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