Student testimonial

Student Renske Onstein - MSc Biology

I am studying Biology and I specialise in Ecology; more specifically Evolutionary Ecology. I always dreamed to travel the world and to discover new species like Darwin did. During my studies I found that evolutionary processes all play a role when it comes to specialisation, and I learned about the many spectacular examples from nature. "Co-evolution", where two different types of evolution guide each other, has always fascinated me. I therefore looked to do my thesis in this direction, and I ended up at the Department of Biosystematics.

The best part of this thesis was the combination of fieldwork, lab work and analysis.

Thesis

My research focused on the evolution of Rinorea (Violaceae), a particular genus, as a food plant for Cymothoe (Nymphalideae), a butterfly genus that occurs only in tropical Africa. The caterpillars of these butterflies seem to be very specialized, since many species are monophagous: one kind of Cymothoe only occurs on one kind of Rinorea. The question is: why? And how can these butterflies distinguish between different types of Rinorea ? The idea is that the diversity of Rinorea species in evolutionary history has ensured the emergence of a niche in which various types of Cymothoe could arise and specialize on a certain Rinorea food plant.

For this thesis I have done fieldwork in Ghana. With a butterfly net and a plant press I went into the jungle to collect samples. I then processed those samples back in the lab in Wageningen. In order to determine the evolutionary history, you can compare certain parts in the DNA, so-called genes, by making a phylogenetic tree. I looked for useful genes in the DNA of the Rinorea plants, and worked with complicated software to design a phylogenetic tree , from which I could read the evolutionary history.

The best part of this thesis was the combination of fieldwork, lab work and analysis. Doing research is challenging, because you study something in depth to be able to understand this small thing thoroughly. All aspects of it. You cannot overlook anything, which would give you an incorrect result. That is a challenge. And when you're walking through the jungle and the sun rises, when you are clammy with sweat and it is swarming with mosquitoes, then you realize you're alive and what you are doing it all for: to understand that life and to preserve it. Because if we do not know how species arise and evolve, we can never predict how species will respond to climate change, for example.