Megafauna and megafruit

A giant fruit tree

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 as elephants. However, almost all megafauna went extinct in the Quaternary, leaving the fruits as 'orphans' in ecosystems.

Are plants with megafaunal fruits suffering from the extinction of their past interaction partners? For example, do they have small geographical range and population sizes? Are they able to adapt by evolving smaller fruits that can be dispersed by the leftover smaller-bodied animals? We work in different tropical ecosystems (e.g. Madagascar, Borneo, Neotropics) to collect fruit functional trait and population genomic data from wild populations and species with megafruits – such as species of palms (Arecaceae) or custard apples (Annonaceae) – to understand whether they have suffered from genetic bottlenecks, show adaptive variation in frugivory-related genes, and to reconstruct the macroevolution and distribution of megafaunal fruits across flowering plants.

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Dr. Renske Onstein
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Tropical Botany


Madagascar, Colombia, Borneo
-21.749295836732, 46.839910324428

In the

  • 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. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0882
  • 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. 2022. doi: 10.1111/ecog.05885
  • Research highlight in Nature Ecology & Evolution
Dr. Renske Onstein in rainforest