Renske Onstein

Renske Onstein with two Nepenthes plants in Borneo

Why do some groups of organisms diversify into many species, while diversification is much slower in other groups, places, or time periods? My research focuses on the interchange between ecology and evolution, from micro (local, regional, recent) to macro (global, deep time) levels, to answer this question.


Angiosperms, diversification rates, plant-frugivore interactions, phylogenetic comparative methods, functional traits

Dr. Renske Onstein

Senior Researcher
Tropical Botany

+31 (0)6 46583916 
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I am interested in the evolution, adaptation and distribution of plant diversity. This diversity may be the result of rapid, sometimes adaptive, evolutionary radiations, which in turn are influenced by the interaction between trait innovation and environmental change. Understanding what causes variation in taxonomic, genetic, functional and phylogenetic diversity is important for conservation and predicting what may happen to ecosystems in the future.

In my work, I apply a range of approaches - fieldwork, herbarium work, lab work, analysis - to understand where, when, and how angiosperms have evolved, which trait innovations (e.g., fleshy fruits, sclerophyllous leaves) have allowed for shifts in diversification rates, and under which deep time (Cenozoic) environmental conditions trait and rate shifts have taken place. An important aspect of my work is the sampling of plant functional trait data from the field (e.g., Madagascar), herbaria, and literature. My work provides insights into why certain ecosystems (e.g., tropical rainforests, Mediterranean-type ecosystems) are hyperdiverse - in terms of species richness as well as functional diversity.

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A selection of the topics I am working on currently.

A giant fruit tree

Megafauna and megafruit

Some plants have evolved very large 'megafaunal' fruits - similar in size to avocados and mangos. These megafaunal fruits may have evolved and adapted to dispersal by megafauna: large animals that feed on these fruits and thereby disperse the seeds – such…
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Plant from Leucospermum genus

Trait evolution and convergence

Darwin’s second ‘abominable mystery’ targets the question why flowering plants (angiosperms) are so species-rich and ecologically successful, in particular compared to other plant clades (e.g. pteridophytes and gymnosperms). The repeated evolution of…
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Bird with fruit

Plant-animal interactions

Interactions between plants and animals are essential for the functioning of evosystems. Furthermore, via co-evolutionary dynamics, they may influence the emergence of new species and biodiversity. We focus on mutualistic and antagonistic interactions…
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  • Onstein, R.E., Kissling W. D., and Linder H. P. (2022) The megaherbivore gap after the non-avian dinosaur extinctions modified trait evolution and diversification of tropical palms. Proc. R. Soc. B. 289:20212633. doi: org/10.1098/rspb.2021.2633
  • Alzate, A. & Onstein, R.E. (2022) Understanding the relationship between dispersal and range size. Ecology Letters, 25, 2303– 2323. doi: org/10.1111/ele.14089
  • Onstein, RE (2020) Darwin’s second ‘abominable mystery’: trait flexibility as the innovation leading to angiosperm diversity. New Phytologist 228: 1741-174. doi: 10.1111/nph.16294
  • Onstein RE, Vink DN, Veen J, Barratt CD, Flantua S, Wich SA, Kissling WD (2020) Palm fruit colour are linked to the broad-scale distribution and diversification of primate colour vision systems. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 20192731. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2019.2731
  • Onstein RE, Baker WJ, Couvreur TLP, Faurby S, Svenning JC, Kissling WD. (2017) Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:1903–1911. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0348-7

For a complete list, see my google scholar page.

All publications


Naturalis aims to be a breeding ground for international scientific talent. Therefore, PhD's have a special position in our organisation.

    I am also leading the Evolution & Adaptation group at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle - Jena - Leipzig (Germany), and supervise several PhD students there. For an overview of people in the group, see here.


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    In the

    My research on plant evolution after the dinosaur extinctions received attention from the media, such as SYFY, SALON, and the German radio ('die Profis').

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