Institut für Evolution und Ökologie

The Hilgendorf Lecture

The lecture is named after Franz M. Hilgendorf (1834-1904), a palaeontologist from Tübingen who, in 1863, constructed the first empirical phylogenetic tree of fossil organisms using snail shells. He thus provided the first fossil proof of gradual evolution and speciation as proposed by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In memento of this work, the Hilgendorf Lecture series promotes evolutionary thinking across disciplines. Internationally renowned scientists present their latest work or show where evolutionary thinking can inform other research areas. The lecture is open to the public and addresses undergraduate and advanced students, postdocs and members of staff from various fields.

Hilgendorf lectures

WHEN?   Wed 1715 - 1900 

WHERE?  GUZ lecture hall 3M07 • Schnarrenbergstraße 94-96 • Tübingen (GM).

Forthcoming talks (WS 2024)

Date Speaker and Abstract

08 Dec 2023 (FRIDAY)
Host: Nils Anthes



31 Jan 2024 (Wed)
Host: Dorothée Drucker

Lecture hall 3M07, GUZ

Marc Naguib (Wageningen University (The Netherlands))

NOTE unusual place and time: Fr 17ct-19, Alte Aula, Münzgasse 30. Keynote lecture at  Meeting StEvE

Birds in space and time: The role of communication and movement for understanding animal societies 

Animal societies are characterized by spatial and signalling connectivity among individuals in groups as well as in territorial neighborhoods. Songbirds with their loud song are well studied model organisms to understand how signals are related to. Here I will give an overview over some of our research on the relation between birdsong, movements, and social organization including our current project of high resolution tracking of movements in wild zebra finches in the variable climate of the Australian Outback with very different selection pressures compared to the Northern temperate zones.

Jens-Christian Svenning (Aarhus University (Denmark))

Trophic rewilding as a key restoration approach – insights from and for macro- and paleoecology

The urgent biodiversity and climate crises call for unprecedented actions towards the recovery of nature. One key action towards this goal is trophic rewilding, an ecological restoration strategy that uses species introductions to restore top-down trophic interactions and associated trophic cascades to promote self-regulating biodiverse ecosystems. Here, I discuss the background for trophic rewilding with special attention to insights from macro- and paleoecological studies. Altogether these studies support a key role for megafauna, notably large herbivores via their direct interplay with vegetation via herbivory and propagule dispersal. Importantly, they show that megafauna functional diversity and abundance was generally at very high levels prior to human-driven defaunation, with inferred high rates of vegetation biomass consumption and propagule dispersal rates, and associated with high vegetation diversity, a key mechanistic driver of overall biodiversity. Furthermore, empirical studies of current restoration and rewilding projects show that these functions and their biodiversity effects can successfully be restored. These findings highlight the need for widely restoring large natural and semi-natural areas with higher megafauna densities and diversities than typically exist in nature today, as a key element in the much-needed strong increase in conservation and restoration actions. At the same time, they also point to the need to revise and further study the functioning of paleo-ecosystems.

Previous talks

SS 2023

Date Speaker and Abstract

12 July 2023
Host: Cosimo Posth


Ludovic Orlando (Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, France)

The genomic history of the domestic horse

The horse is one of the last mega-herbivores to have been domesticated but certainly represents the one that most impacted human history. It provided past societies with fast mobility, new ways to make war, and facilitated pastoralism and farming. The history of the domestic horse, from the early stages more than 4000 years ago, to the modern breeding of racing champions, remained poorly understood. In the last few years, the sequencing of extensive genome time-series for horses has helped write entirely new chapters about their domestication history. It revealed their original homeland in the steppes of the lower Don-Volga, rewrote the evolutionary origins of the now extinct-in-the-wild Przewalski's horses and tracked the geographic and temporal spread of some of the key selective breeding targets for traits such as high-stature, speed and more. I will show how my group harnessed the latest methodological advances in ancient DNA research to gain new understanding of the process and history underlying horse domestication.

WS 2022/2023

Date Speaker and Abstract

28 October 2022 (Friday)

Host: Hervé Bocherens


Prof. Dr. Eline Lorenzen (Section for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)

This talk will be given during Meeting StEvE 2022.
Note exceptional day (Friday) and location (Alte Aula, Münzgasse)

Arctic marine mammals in a post-Arctic world

The Arctic is one of Earth’s most fragile ecosystems. The scale of change taking place in Arctic marine environments due to rises in temperature and loss of sea ice cover is overwhelming. This talk will present research on Arctic marine mammals. Utilising a combination of population genomics, ancient DNA, stable isotopes, and ecological modelling, we reconstruct patterns of population diversity and demographic change across space and time. Our analyses provide direct insights into how climate change has impacted populations in the past. Our aim is to use these data to provide the empirical foundation for anticipating the vulnerability and resilience of Arctic marine mammal species to near-future projections of accelerated climate change. The research is therefore of direct relevance to the Arctic communities that rely on these enigmatic species for their livelihoods.

09 November 2022 (Wednesday)

Host: Nico Michiels

Prof. Michel C. Milinkovitch (Dept of Genetics & Evolution, University of Geneva, Switzerland)

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Reaction-Diffusion in Vertebrate Skin Colour Patterning

Alan Turing proposed a reaction-diffusion (RD) process as the chemical basis of morphogenesis. Despite the elegance of this model, its relevance for the precise description of morphogenesis in real organisms is largely disputed. I will discuss how mesoscopic properties of biological dynamical systems (including unsuspected subtle features) are captured by simple RD models without integrating the unmanageable profusion of variables at lower scales.

11 January 2023 (Wednesday)

Hosts: Todd Ehlers & Oliver Bossdorf

Prof. Dr. Thomas Hickler (Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F) and Department of Physical Geography at the Goethe-University of Frankfurt)

Interactions between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and climate – past, present and future

Biodiversity loss and climate change pose enormous challenges for our society and are strongly interlinked. I will describe the numerous interactions between biodiversity, ecosystems and climate, including state-of-art future scenarios, in particular concerning the potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity, ecosystems and human well-being. These impacts are increasingly apparent already today and include more extreme weather, forest dieback, flooding and increasing risk for wildfires. Potential future changes are beyond our imagination and at the same order of magnitude as Earth System changes over tens of millions of years. This implies that paleo-research is crucial to understand the fundamental system behaviour and for developing reliable future predictions. Furthermore, both the biodiversity and the climate challenge need to be addressed together. Too much focus on climate only in the past has been harmful for biodiversity and often even detrimental to our climate goals.

SS 2022

Date Speaker and Abstract

29 June 2022 (Wednesday)

Host: Oliver Bossdorf


Dr. Susana Coelho (Dept. of Algal Development and Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Biology, Tübingen)

The private life of algae

Sexual reproduction is an ancient and conserved feature of life on earth. However, the mechanisms that determine the sex of an individual are not evolutionary conserved, but are mesmerizingly diverse and have had rapid turnover rates during eukaryotic evolution.  What drives the surprising evolutionary dynamics of such a fundamental process? What are the mechanisms underlying switches between sex determination systems? Are all sex chromosomes equal in terms of origin and evolutionary trajectories?  The answers are complex but the ongoing genomic revolution and the use of alternative model organisms is already shedding light on sex chromosome diversity and evolution. I will describe how recent work in our group using brown algal models is contributing to this dynamic field of research.

13 July 2022 (Wednesday)

Host: Claudio Tennie

Prof. April Nowell (Dept. of Anthropology, University of Victoria, Canada)

The Stories We Tell: Children, oral storytelling, and knowledge transmission in the European Upper Paleolithic

Storytelling, whether around a campfire, in a café or a sold out theater, is ubiquitous in human culture. Globally, storytelling through film, television, books, videogames and other media represents a $300 billion industry. The universality of storytelling suggests that this behavior has deep roots. It also begs the questions of why we as humans find stories so compelling and what the evolutionary context for this behavior might be. The ways in which children learn in foraging societies differ from the classroom-based style of learning and teaching typical of industrialized societies in the West. This difference, however, has often been mischaracterized by anthropologists as an absence or rarity of direct teaching in foraging societies. In this talk, following the work of Scalise Sugiyama, I argue that oral storytelling is a form of pedagogy in foraging societies that shares  many of the features of direct teaching. Building on ethnographic data, I explore the evolutionary context, adaptive features and cognitive underpinnings of storytelling. I then present archaeological evidence for storytelling and narrative in the Upper Paleolithic. Finally, arguing that storytelling is a vehicle for cumulative culture, I consider the implications of this form of teaching for skill acquisition and knowledge transmission among Upper Paleolithic children and adolescents and for their role as drivers of human cultural evolution.

27 July 2022 (Wednesday)

Host: Susan Mentzer

Prof. Hazel Barton (Dept. of Biology, Integrated Bioscience, University of Akron, USA)

The Inherent Value of Cave Microbiology

Caves, by their nature, are aphotic and geologically isolated.  As such, it would seem that the microbial ecology of these environments would be of limited interest – populated by a few species adapted to the ultraoligotrophic conditions.  Yet caves contain a remarkable and varied microbial ecosystem that subsists on extremely low available nutrients. The absence of disturbance (such as diurnal, seasonal, or meteorological) allows us to study geochemical transformations that have been in equilibrium for thousands of years, revealing aspects of microbial physiology and energy conservation that are challenging to study elsewhere, including activity on the energetic fringes of the iron, manganese, and nitrogen cycles - and despite conditions considered aphotic, even photosynthesis.  In order to adapt to these unusual conditions, the microorganisms found in caves display unusual phenotypes, particularly regarding calcium chemistry and carbonate formation, which may play an important future role in reducing the carbon footprint of many industrial processes.

WS 2021/2022

Date Speaker and Abstract

26 November 2021 (Friday)

Host: Korinna Allhoff


Prof. Vigdis Vandvik (Professor of plant ecology, University of Bergen, Norway)

This talk will be given online via Zoom during Meeting StEvE.
Note exceptional day (Friday) and time: 16:30

Going high: Combining altitudinal gradients and experiments to study global change impacts on plants, vegetation, & ecosystems

Many people living today have experienced for themselves what the first generations of scientific explorers realized as they started travelling the world: How many of the striking patterns in nature, the general trends of form and function in plants, animals, and ecosystems, repeat themselves across continents, and along major bioclimatic gradients such as up mountain slopes. These realizations once shaped the science of biogeography, and they are still of real-world relevance today.
Altitudinal gradients are important natural laboratories of ecology and evolution, and at the same time they are ‘canaries’ in the rapidly changing earth system. Mountain slopes are thus great research sites for biodiversity science, but it is only when combined with experiments, the ‘gold standard’ approach of empirical science, that their true powers as research facilities emerge. By combining experiments and gradients into ‘experimental macroecology’ we can really start to attribute cause and effect and predict the future ecological dynamics and functioning of our rapidly changing landscapes.
In this talk, I will share with you examples of some of the insights we have gained over the years from replicating global change experiments across broad-scale biogeographic scales to understand how climate and global change impacts ecosystems across scales from plant physiology via populations and communities to ecosystem scales. Functional trait-based approaches allow us to test hypotheses about both ecological processes and ecosystem consequences of biodiversity change.
In this work, we have uncovered generalities in ecological processes and responses, but also variation across systems. Such variation or ‘context-dependencies’ are often seen as nuisances that frustrate generalization and one-size-fits-all interventions, but we argue they could and should be approached more systematically to uncover the biological processes that underlie emerging patterns.
Field-based plant science offers great opportunities for student-active research, benefiting both science and student outcomes. I will share experiences from our international plant functional traits courses that has enabled us to offer students hands-on experience in trait-based research while collecting uniquely detailed data along altitudinal gradients in the eastern Himalayas, in the Andes, and in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard.

22 December 2021 (Wednesday)

Host: Hervé Bocherens

Prof. Dr. Kathryn Fitzsimmons (Department of Geosciences, University of Tübingen)

Note exceptional time: 17:30
Note exceptional location: lecture hall 3M07 of GUZ building (Schnarrenbergstraße 94-96)

The Silk Road and the Dreaming: interactions between climate, landscape and people on desert margins

The Earth’s land surface – its diverse landscapes – have provided our species with everything we need to survive. We, in turn, have adapted to changing landscapes, dispersed across continents, and thrived. The human story is a thrilling adventure played out over the last few million years, spanning the full range of ecosystems our world has to offer.
In this lecture I will take you on a tour of possibilities for integrating earth sciences with archaeological traces of human response to changing landscapes, with a focus on dryland environments. We will visit the desert margins of Australia (the Dreaming), where close cooperation between geologists, archaeologists and local indigenous people has uncovered evidence for preferential exploitation of lacustrine resources while the lakes were drying rather than when they were full, and for incredible human resilience in times of drastically reduced mobility due to lake filling. Moving to Central Asia (the Silk Road) and its substantial wind-blown dust (loess) deposits, we will explore the likely climatic contexts which formed the backdrop for hominin dispersals and interactions between multiple human species.
Each of these dramatic human stories took place against a geological backdrop of changing climates and landscapes which are most effectively reconstructed by integrating the earth science tools of geochronology, geochemistry, remote sensing, GIS and climate modelling, with archaeological enquiry. I will discuss exciting new approaches now available to extract more meaningful data from the terrestrial sediments which preserve past environments and their human stories.

SS 2021

Date Speaker and Abstract

12 May 2021 (Wednesday)

Host: Oliver Betz


Prof. Marguerite Butler, Ph.D. (Department of Biology, University of Hawaii).

Note exeptional time: 19:15

This talk will be given online via Zoom.

Why are there so many species? Form, function, and biodiversity in Papuan microhylid frogs

Why are some groups of animals inordinately speciose? The microhylid frogs of New Guinea and its satellite islands are a prime example, comprising over 300 species containing about half the worldʻs microhylid frog diversity on a tiny fraction of the earthʻs surface. What causes this explosion of biodiversity? These closely-related frogs have long been hypothesized by field collectors to be part of an adaptive radiation with specializations for burrowing, terrestrial, semi-aquatic, arboreal, and scansorial lifestyles, but without functional study. We studied hypotheses of the “niche” in this group for the first time by conducting locomotor performance and evolutionary ecological analyses at 6 field sites across Papua New Guinea to explore the connection between environment (microhabitat) and correlated evolution in morphology and function using phylogenetic comparative analysis.
The Papuan region is also one of the most geologically dynamic regions of the world, lying at the junction of three tectonic plates. Movements of these plates have caused the earthʻs crust to slide, uplift, and move resulting in the “mainland” of New Guinea to grow over time, as well as cause dramatic changes in the satellite islands to come into closer proximity, “pass by” one another, or rise de novo via uplift. Recently our lab produced the most highly-resolved, geographically-sampled phylogeny for this taxonomically problematic group and use it to test hypotheses of drivers of biodiversity, whether it is driven by movements of land to bring frog communities together, biogeographic separation prompting speciation, adaptation to “niches”, or some combination of ecological opportunity, migration, speciation, and evolutionary adaptation.
We gratefully acknowledge financial support from NSF DEB 1145733.


30 June 2021 (Wednesday)

Host: Oliver Bossdorf

Prof. Camille Parmesan (Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, Sète).

Note that this lecture (formerly scheduled on 23 June) has been postponed for one week.

This talk will be given online via Zoom.

Potentials and limitations of evolution in shaping the impacts of climate change on wild species

As climate change continues to accelerate, there is an emerging literature on population-level ecological and evolutionary responses that complement the large numbers of studies documenting species' range shifts. Localized responses can take the form of changes in dispersal behavior, voltinism, dietary specialization, camouflage, phenology or microhabitat choice. While studies of underlying processes often reveal variation based on plasticity, rapid changes can also be the results of rapid local evolution. These local changes are expected to differ qualitatively between expanding range limits and range interiors. Better understanding of the interplay between events at range limits and in range centers, and the extent to which plastic vs evolutionary processes prevail are important for conservation planning in the face of continued climate change. We highlight the highly climate-sensitive group of butterflies in the Euphydryas (North America) and Mellitae (Europe) groups to illustrate the complexity of possible population-level responses to climate change.

28 July 2021 (Wednesday)

Host: Korinna Allhoff

Prof. Fernanda Valdovinos (Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis).

This talk will be given online via Zoom.

How ecological networks respond to environmental changes?

Plant-animal mutualistic networks sustain terrestrial biodiversity and human food-security. Environmental changes threaten these networks underscoring the urgency for developing predictive theories on the networks ’responses to perturbations.
This talk will present research conducted by my group and collaborators that seeks to understand the dynamics of ecological networks to inform predictions on their responses to environmental changes. In particular, I will present theoretical work predicting: i) foraging preferences of pollinators measured in the field, ii) invasion success and impacts on natives, and iii) interaction rewiring as response to a severe drought.
I will end my talk by briefly presenting examples of our work using ecological networks to study the response of food webs to fisheries.

WS 2020/2021

Date Speaker and Abstract

13 Nov 2020 (Friday)

Host: Claudio Tennie


Dr. Mark Moore (University of New England, Armidale, Australia).

This talk will be given online during Meeting StEvE

Stone tools and cognitive evolution: Insights from stone-flaking experiments

The 3.4 million-year history of stone flaking is perhaps our best source of empirical evidence for evolving hominin cognitive capacities. But how do we interpret that evidence in a way that is meaningful for cognitive studies? In this talk I will first review the ‘standard story’ of stone tool design and cognitive evolution, and then argue that the consensus narrative—driven by assertions of goal-directed, top-down design processes—is epistemologically unwarranted.  Next I will describe our recent experiments that removed complex intentions from the stone-flaking process and showed that the ostensibly complex early tool forms at the heart of the standard story can in fact be created by relatively mindless, bottom-up design. The talk concludes by presenting a model of hominin cognitive evolution that incorporates these empirical observations.

09 Dec 2020 (Wednesday)

Host: Oliver Bossdorf

Prof. Marc T. J. Johnson, Ph.D. (University of Toronto, Centre for Urban Environments).

This talk will be given online via Zoom.

The Evolution of Life in the Urban Jungle

Urban areas represent the fastest growing ecosystem on earth, in which the development of cities dramatically changes the biotic and abiotic environment to create novel ecosystems. Despite the importance of urbanization, we have little understanding of how urbanization affects the evolution of species that live in cities. In this talk, I will discuss the most current science about how cities are affecting evolution in plants and animals, from elevating mutation rates to driving novel adaptions, to giving rise to new species through the process of urban driven speciation. I will then describe our research on a single model organisms, white clover, in which we have investigated whether urbanization affects natural selection, genetic drift, and gene flow. We are currently extending this work to understand if urbanization throughout the world is leading to convergent evolution at a global scale. I will conclude with a discussion of the applied importance of understanding evolution in cities.

WS 2019/2020

Date Speaker and Abstract

06 Dec 2019 (Friday)

Host: Katharina Foerster


Prof. Dr. Mike Bruford (Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff, UK).

Note exceptional time (Friday) and location (Alte Aula, Münzgasse)

Conserving Genomic Diversity in a Changing World

Genomic diversity (GD) is one of the three key components of biological diversity that can be measured, and thirty years of population genetic (and now genomic) research have shown that GD estimators can provide sensitive indictors of changes in demographic processes manifested in  population  size,  connectivity,  inbreeding,  introgression/hybridization  among  others.  Yet, despite its proven record, GD is rarely incorporated into conservation planning, and we have to ask  the  question  “why?”  and  examine  the  prospects  for  its  more  meaningful  inclusion  in  conservation  policy  and  management  in  the  future.  I  will  examine  the  reasons  for  the  limited  traction that genetic science has gained in conservation, exemplify some case studies from our own   work   where   genetic   and   genomic   data   can   fundamentally   change   conservation   management action and discuss prospects for how this situation may improve as we transition into a new decade of conservation planning.

08 Jan 2020
Host: Katerina Harvati


Prof. Dr. Ruth Ley (Department of Microbiome Science, Max Planck Inst. for Developmental Biology, Tübingen)

The role of the microbiome in human genetic adaptation

Human populations have adapted genetically to a variety of local environments across the globe. They have not done so alone, as humans harbour microbiomes acquired from other individuals and from the environment. A subset of host-associated microbes can affect host traits, and these microbes can also be under the genetic influence of the host. Microbiomes can thereby enable or otherwise affect the host’s adaptation to local environments. Our work has highlighted three examples where the microbiome has likely contributed to adaptive trait variation in humans. (1) The strongest association between gut microbiome composition and human genotype is between the human lactate gene (LCT) and the abundance of gut Bifidobacteria. This is true for multiple populations of European descent and is dependent on milk consumption. (2) We have also recently linked the variation in copy number of the salivary amylase gene (AMY1) with the composition and function of the gut microbiome. (3) The gut microbes for which humans have the strongest genetic predisposition belong to the family Christesenellaceae. Intriguingly, these bacteria are also associated with a lean human body type and can induce leanness in mice. Other known examples of local adaptations in humans exist, where future studies may investigate how microbes interact with host adaptive alleles in the process of host adaptive evolution. Despite the potential role of microbiomes in moderating host genetic adaptation, evolutionary models that integrate the interactions between beneficial microbes and beneficial host alleles during the process of host adaptation remain to be developed.

29 Jan 2020

Host: Oliver Bossdorf


Prof. Dr. Carol Lee (Centre of Rapid Evolution, Univ. of Wisconsin)

Note exceptional location (Hörsaal N10, Auf der Morgenstelle 3)

Rapid genomic evolution during habitat invasions

The ability of populations to expand their geographic ranges, whether as invaders, agricultural strains, or climate migrants, presents among the most serious global problems today. However, fundamental mechanisms remain poorly understood regarding factors that enable certain populations, such as biological invaders, to rapidly transition to novel habitats. According to one hypothesis, environmental fluctuations in the
native range could promote successful invasions in novel habitats by imposing balancing selection on key traits and maintaining the genetic variation that enables rapid adaptation. Here, we test the genomic
predictions of this hypothesis by performing whole genome sequencing of multiple independent invasive freshwater and native saline populations of the copepod Eurytemora affinis complex. We found that invasive populations have repeatedly responded to selection through the parallel use of the same SNPs and genomic loci, and remarkably, these same loci are enriched for signatures of long-term balancing selection in the native ranges. Our results support the hypothesis that fluctuating habitats can promote invasive success and that balancing selection could serve as a widespread and important mechanism enabling rapid adaptation in nature.