German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv)

Interview with Renske Onstein

As of June, the Dutch biologist Dr Renske Emilie Onstein is heading up the new “Evolution and Adaptation” junior research group at iDiv. Onstein most recently worked at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the evolutionary biology of flowering plants in the Cenozoic period at the University of Zurich, where she was awarded her PhD with distinction. With a grant from the Swiss National Fund (SNF), she then went on to work at Paris-Sud University. Onstein specialised in flowering plants (Angiosperms) in regions ranging from tropical rainforests to Mediterranean ecosystems. She conducted research at a number of botanical gardens and carried out fieldwork in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America. Renske Onstein was interviewed by Tilo Arnhold (iDiv M&C).



Tilo Arnhold: How did you learn about the new position and why was it interesting for you?

Renske Onstein: I heard about this position after visiting the lab of Prof Alexandra Muellner-Riehl at Leipzig University to give a seminar last year. I am familiar with the research aim of iDiv and I thought my research could fit in there very well. We have overlapping ideas related to understanding broad-scale biodiversity patterns and processes, but approaching this from an evolutionary angle was largely absent from iDiv research so far. My research could be an interesting contribution, I thought, providing exciting opportunities for collaborations.


Arnhold: Why are “Evolution and Adaptation” important for biodiversity and thus for mankind?

Onstein: To protect biodiversity, it is essential to understand where it came from. Not just spatially, but also historically. Therefore we need to know the evolution of groups of organisms: when, where and why did they evolve? Why did they evolve certain ‘traits’? These traits (such as leaf size and thickness in plants) are in turn essential to understand ecosystem functions and processes (such as carbon uptake) important for humans. Understanding the history, evolution and adaptation of biodiversity is therefore essential to humans in a rapidly changing world.


Arnhold: What aspects will you focus on in your research?

Onstein: My research has a strong focus on deep-time evolutionary processes of speciation, extinction and adaptation, so playing over millions of years. I use phylogenetic tools and comparative methods to study these processes, and I also include fossils into these approaches. Recently, I have also become interested in looking in slightly more recent time scales and how organisms evolve and adapt. I aim to combine these two time scales to understand how fruits have evolved and adapted to dispersal by certain seed-dispersing animals (frugivores) on Madagascar. I am especially interested in the recent extinctions of giant lemurs that used to be important frugivores, and what the consequences are for plants with very large fruits (comparable in size to the avocado or mango). Are they still dispersed? By what kind of animals? Are they adapting to new dispersers? And are they suffering from dispersal limitation and facing extinction? How have their ancestors adapted to past global change or to changes in frugivore communities?

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