Dr Renske Onstein

Head of Junior Research Group



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.

iDiv publications


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 (in press) *

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 (in press) *

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 287(1921) *

Flantua, S. G. A., O’DEA, A., Onstein, R. E., Hooghiemstra, H.

(2019): The flickering connectivity system of the north Andean páramos. bioRxiv 569681

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 46(8), 1792-1807 *

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 (in press) *

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 6(1) *

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 128(1), 1-19 *

Onstein, R. E.

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

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 46(8), 1874-1888

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 123(1), 191-204

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 27(21), 4289-308
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Puschstrasse 4
04103 Leipzig

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+49 341 9739156
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Leipzig University

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