Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

dr. R.E. (Renske) Onstein

Postdoctoral Researcher
  • Faculty of Science
    Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics
  • Visiting address
    Science Park A


Since June 2016 I am a postdoc at the TCE group of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). I am part of the BIOMAC lab led by Associate Prof. Daniel Kissling.


I am interested in both the proximate and the ultimate causes that could explain why species occur where they do, how they have adapted to their environment, how they interact, how they survive and reproduce and which strategies they have to be successful in their environment- in other words: how they have evolved. To this end, I study the role of plant functional traits in Cenozoic angiosperm radiations. The angiosperms with a standing diversity of ca. 400.000 species are one of the most diverse and ecologically dominant groups of organisms on Earth. However, this diversity is unevenly distributed, both spatially and phylogenetically. I hypothesize that (vegetative and reproductive) plant functional traits in interaction with the environment may have shaped numerous explosive radiations of angiosperm clades (e.g. Bouchenak-Khelladi, Onstein et al. 2015), by influencing speciation and extinction dynamics (e.g. Onstein et al. 2014, 2015, 2016). In a multidisciplinary approach I investigate methods to link plant functional trait shifts to climate shifts to predict diversification rate shifts, and cross-check these patterns with the fossil record (e.g. Xing, Onstein et al. 2014). Methods include the selection and scoring of plant functional traits (binary, categorical and continuous traits) for extant taxa - from herbarium material and the field (e.g. Australia, South Africa, Borneo), inferring the evolutionary history of these traits by testing different evolutionary models (e.g. BM, OU, EB) and linking them to climate, fossil data and diversification rates using phylogenetic comparative methods. 

Current project

I currently work on frugivory (i.e. fruit-eating and seed dispersal by animals) - which is ubiquitous in tropical ecosystems, but the role that frugivores have played in the macroevolution of species-rich tropical plant families remains largely unexplored. I 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 families of custard apples (Annonaceae) and palms (Arecaceae), 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 and palms are particularly suitable because they are well studied, species-rich (ca. 2400 species in each clade), 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.

For updates on the project and news, please check my personal website:

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Short CV

(for more details see:

  • Jun 2016-Current: Postdoc at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) at the University of Amsterdam (Funded by NWO grant to Daniel Kissling).
  • Aug 2015-Jun 2016: Postdoc at Université Paris-Sud, Lab. Écologie, Systématique, Évolution (ESE) (Funded by a personal grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation). For a 1 minute summary of this research, watch this video.
  • 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. Master 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.

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Publications before arriving at IBED, University of Amsterdam. See 'publications' tab for articles published afterwards.



Onstein, R.E., Jordan, G.J., Sauquet, H., Weston, P.H., Bouchenak-Khelladi, Y., Carpenter, R.J., Linder, H.P. (2016). “Evolutionary radiations of Proteaceae are triggered by the interaction between traits and climates in open habitats.” Global Ecology and Biogeography 25 (10):1239–1251. doi: 10.1111/geb.12481

Xing, Y., Gandolfo, M.A., Onstein, R.E., Cantrill, D.J., Jacobs, B.F.,  Jordan, G.J., Lee, D.E., Popova, S., Srivastava, R., Su, T., Vikulin, S.V., Yabe, A., Linder, H.P. (2016). “Testing the biases in the rich Cenozoic angiosperm macrofossil record”. International Journal of Plant Sciences 177 (4):371-388.  doi: 10.1086/685388

Onstein, R.E., Linder, H.P. (2016). “Beyond climate: convergence in fast evolving sclerophylls in Cape and Australian Rhamnaceae predates the mediterranean climate.” Journal of Ecology 104:665-677. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12538


Onstein, R.E.*,  Bouchenak-Khelladi, Y.*, Xing, Y., Schwery, O., Linder, H.P. (2015). “On the complexity of triggering evolutionary radiations”. New Phytologist 207: 313-326. doi: 10.1111/nph.13331. *authors contributed equally

Schwery, O., Onstein, R.E., Bouchenak-Khelladi, Y., Xing, Y., Carter, R., Linder, H.P. (2015). “As old as the mountains: the radiations of the Ericaceae”. New Phytologist 207: 355-367doi: 10.1111/nph.13234.

Breitkopf, H., Onstein, R.E., Cafasso, D., Schlüter, P.M., Cozzolino, S. (2015). “Multiple shifts to different pollinators fuelled rapid diversification in sexually deceptive Ophrys orchids”. New Phytologist. 207: 377-389. doi: 10.1111/nph.13219.

Onstein, R.E., Carter, R.J., Xing, Y., Richardson, J., Linder, H.P. (2015). “Do Mediterranean-type ecosystems have a common history? – Insights from the Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae)”. Evolution 69:756-771. doi: 10.1111/evo.12605.

Van Velzen, R, Wahlert, G.A., Sosef, M.S.M, Onstein, R.E., Bakker, F.T. (2015). “Phylogenetics of Rinorea (Violaceae); elucidating infrageneric relationships using plastid and nuclear DNA sequences”. Systematic Botany 40:174-184. doi: 10.1600/036364415X686486.


Onstein, R.E., Carter, R.J., Xing, Y., Linder, H.P. (2014). “Diversification rate shifts in the Cape Floristic Region: the right traits in the right place at the right time.” Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 16:331-340. doi:10.1016/j.ppees.2014.08.002.

Xing, Y, Onstein, R.E., Carter, R.J., Stadler, T., Linder, H.P. (2014). “Fossils and a large molecular phylogeny show that the evolution of species richness, generic diversity and turn-over rates are disconnected.” Evolution 68:2821-2932. doi: 10.1111/evo.12489.

Book chapters / theses:

Ackerly, D, Onstein, RE (in press). “Assembly of mediterranean-type floras – convergence, exaptation and evolutionary predisposition”, eds. Esler, K, Pratt, B and Jacobsen, A in “The Biology of Mediterranean Type Ecosystems” Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Onstein, RE (2015). “The role of plant functional traits in Cenozoic angiosperm radiations.” PhD thesis. Institute for systematic Botany, University of Zurich, Zurich.

Outreach blog at Nature community about our publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution: Nature community blog

Outreach by UvA, about our publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution: UvA News (English), UvA nieuws (Dutch)

Outreach by UvA, about my fieldwork trip to Yunnan, China during the summer of 2017: "Groeten uit... Yunnan, China"


  • Ackerly, D. D., & Onstein, R. E. (2018). Case Study 2: Assembly of mediterranean-type floras: convergence, exaptation and evolutionary predisposition. In K. J. Esler, A. L. Jacobsen, & R. B. Pratt (Eds.), The Biology of Mediterranean-Type Ecosystems (pp. 27-34). (Biology of Habitats Series). Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198739135.003.0002  [details] 


  • Onstein, R. 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 and Evolution, 1(12), 1903-1911. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0348-7  [details] 
  • Barratt, C. D., Bwong, B. A., Onstein, R. E., Rosauer, D. F., Menegon, M., Doggart, N., ... Loader, S. P. (2017). Environmental correlates of phylogenetic endemism in amphibians and the conservation of refugia in the Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa. Diversity and distributions, 23, 875–887. DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12582 
This list of publications is extracted from the UvA-Current Research Information System. Questions? Ask the library  or the Pure staff  of your faculty / institute. Log in to Pure  to edit your publications. Log in to Personal Page Publication Selection tool  to manage the visibility of your publications on this list.

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