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Menno Schilthuizen

Professor Character evolution and biodiversity

Prof.dr. M. Schilthuizen
+31 71 527 2727

I am interested in the evolutionary ecology of morphological diversification in groups of related species. My current research focus is on understanding the evolution of shell shapes and coloration in molluscs, and in animal genitalia and sperm morphology.

More information about Menno Schilthuizen

Brief biography

2013-today: Professor at Leiden University
2007-2012: Endowed Chair at Groningen University
2010-today: Head of the Focus Group Character Evolution (Naturalis)
2008-today: Senior research scientist, Naturalis Biodiversity Center  
Head of Research, Naturalis
2000-2006: Associate Professor, Universiti Malaysia Sabah

Collaborators: Maurijn van der Zee, Mike Richardson, Herman Spaink, Young Choi, Klaas Vrieling (IBL, Leiden), Barbara Gravendeel, Rutger Vos, Tom van Dooren (Naturalis), Joris Koene (VU Amsterdam), Angus Davison (Nottingham University), Rich Palmer (University of Alberta), Virginie Orgogozo (Université Paris), Martin Haase (Greifswald Univ.)

1994-1999: Post-doctoral Fellow, Wageningen University 
Collaborators: Richard Stouthamer (Dept. of Entomology), Rolf Hoekstra (Dept. of Genetics)

1990-1994: PhD-project at Leiden University 
Promotor: Edmund Gittenberger

1984-1989: Biology study at Leiden University
Supervisors: Edmund Gittenberger, Maus Sabelis (University of Amsterdam), Arnold van Huis (Wageningen University), Yusof Hussein (Universiti Pertanian Malaysia)


I am interested in the evolutionary ecology of morphological diversification in groups of related species. My current research focus is on understanding the evolution of shell shapes and coloration in molluscs, and in animal genitalia and sperm morphology. In addition, I am also interested in the evolution of novel ecological interactions between insect herbivores and exotic plants. I try to link use natural history collections as a research tool to find evolutionary patterns and generate hypotheses, which I then test in experimental and field systems. The broad research themes I currently focus on are:

1. Evolution of asymmetric genitalia

Genitalia evolve most rapidly of all animal organ systems. This is due to their being subject to multiple kinds of sexual selection. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that genitalia frequently are strongly asymmetric; after all, sexual signals are usually selected for  symmetry. In genitalia, symmetry apparently is not always sexy; or there are other benefits to asymmetry. I aim to study the evolutionary dynamics of symmetry, asymmetry and mirror-image reversal in male and female genitalia in various groups of beetles, Drosophila, and mammals. To do this, I apply phylogenetic methods, which I then use to generate hypotheses that are tested in the lab by studying copulation and sexual selection in insects.

2. Evolution of shell shape and colour in molluscs

Shells are complex morphological structures that are relatively easily understood in terms of morphogenesis. Their evolution, however, is driven by a set of conflicting demands from biophysics (heat management and water management, weight), defence (predator-deterrence and crypsis), and growth constraints. We study the following aspects of shell evolution: (1) colour patterns in Dutch  Cepaea; (2) predator-prey interaction in diplommatinid microsnails from Borneo; (3) coiling direction in several groups of land snails from Europe and Asia. Some of these allow the elucidation of rapid contemporary evolution driven by global change and/or changing predator-prey interactions. Others find an application in the conservation of highly endemic species on limestone in Borneo.

3. Evolutionary integration of exotic plants in Dutch food webs

Invasive species are on the rise. In the Netherlands, numerous non-native trees and shrubs have become established or are currently in the process of establishing themselves. The ecology of invasion is currently a popular research subject, but the evolutionary impacts are still largely unexplored. I study the evolutionary changes taking place in native Dutch insect herbivores that begin exploiting invasive plants as a food source. We do this mostly by studying the herbivore communities found on introduced woody plants in the dunes near Leiden.

Teaching - Menno Schilthuizen

I am teaching a wide range of topics, such as systematics, evolution, and ecology. I am involved in a popular science book-reading project for first-year students, I lecture in the Genomic Architecture course for MSc students, and I contribute to the Research Projects Evolution, Biodiversity, and Conservation for 1 st-year students. In addition, I am organizer and coordinator of an MSc field course in Tropical Biodiversity and the Orientation course in Evolution, Biodiversity for MSc-students.

Field course Tropical Biodiversity (6 ECTS)

Bi-annual 5-weeks international course in Tropical Biodiversity for MSc students. This course consists of two weeks of lectures in the Botanic Garden in Leiden, followed by two weeks of field practicals and mini-research-projects in the  Danau Girang Field Centre in Malaysian Borneo. The course provides a broad overview of tropical rainforest ecology and biodiversity. During the lectures, students learn about practical aspects of doing field research in the tropics, of the relevant and unanswered questions, and of the application in biodiversity conservation. In addition, basic taxonomic overviews for taxa that are particularly relevant in tropical ecosystems are given. The field work will consist of (a) demonstrations of field methods and techniques and (b) short research projects carried out by small groups of students.

Information in e-Prospectus

Orientation in Evolution, Biodiversity and Conservation (3 ECTS; level 400)

The two-week module “Orientation in EBC” offers a kaleidoscopic overview of the field of Evolution, Biodiversity, and Conservation, with emphasis on those aspects for which the three Leiden partner institutes (IBL, CML, and Naturalis) are particularly strong, namely: (1) data management in research based on natural history collections; (2) (tropical) field biology; (3) ecosystem services; (4) macroecology; (5) character evolution; (6) behavioural biology; (7) palaeontology; and (8) invasion biology. The institutes cooperate in many ways, for example in the joint DNA Markerpoint. In the first week, students will receive lectures in the mornings and practicals or field trips in the afternoons. There will be ample opportunity to learn about the collections, the DNA Markerpoint and other joint facilities. The lectures and practicals will be given by a broad range of scientists from all three institutes, and will all refer to research carried out in this field. There will also be several opportunities to interact socially with class mates and instructors. In the second week, groups of two or three students will carry out a small bit of original research (“mini-projects”) in the field, lab, and/or library, under the supervision of one of the instructors. The two weeks’ module will be ended by presentations on the mini-projects, capped with drinks and snacks

Information in e-Prospectus

Professor Character evolution and biodiversity

  • Science
  • Instituut Biologie Leiden
  • IBL Microbial Sciences


  • Stichting Taxon Foundation Community science activities (non-profit)
  • Studio Schilthuizen free-lance science communication and consulatancies
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