prof. dr. R.S. (Rampal) Etienne

Full professor in theoretical and evolutionary community ecology


Research units:

Research interests

Research topic


A major challenge in ecology is the need for a better theoretical framework for understanding how species assemblages (ecological communities) arise, why some are species-rich and others species-poor, and why some species are present or dominant whereas others are not.

Current community assembly theory is largely based on static models. However, ecological dynamics (e.g. ecological drift, competition, immigration), or evolutionary dynamics (e.g. genetic drift, natural selection, speciation) generate continual changes in the constituents of communities and the sources from which they are assembled. The dynamical models that do exist do not take the community perspective or do not readily allow inferences from data. Moreover, there is often a mismatch between models and data.

We attempt to solve these problems simultaneously by developing a fully stochastic, dynamical and data-friendly theory of community assembly, and testing and informing this theory with model-oriented experiments and field studies of both macro-organisms and micro-organisms. The theory should contain models of speciation, extinction, immigration and demographic change that vary in spatial, phylogenetic and biotic complexity, and which I design for confrontation with data by providing each model’s likelihood given the data.

We conduct evolutionary experiments on the mite Tetranychus urticae and the bacterium Escherichia coli, which are ideal model organisms due to their short generation times. The experiments will provide insight into how diversity affects diversification, a great unknown in current macro-evolutionary theory. Apart from these highly controlled experiments, we apply the theory to naturally occurring micro-landsnails in South-East Asia, and micro-organisms in geothermal pools in New Zealand. Their small size, endemism and spatially limited, discrete habitat create a miniature world that facilitates sampling and confrontation with models. We provide software tools for scientists and conservationists to assess the processes underlying natural communities and predict their future composition and diversity.









From left to right: Cyrus, Mallon, Francisco Richter, Hanno Hildenbrandt, Liang Xu, Shu Xie, Annabel Belliard, Giovanni Laudanno, Raphael Scherrer, Theo Pannetier, Rampal Etienne, Leonel Herrera-Alsina, Elodie Wilwert, Megan Korte, Gerrit Potkamp, Pedro Neves, Richel Bilderbeek, Hylke Kortenbosch, Kasper Hendriks, Karen Bisschop. Missing: Tiphaine Bailly.


- Cyrus Mallon (March 2015 - present)


PhD students

- Shu Xie  (October 2018 - present), jointly superised with L. Valente (Museaum fur Naturkunde, Berlin)

Gerrit Potkamp (September 2018 - present), jointly supervised with M. Maan and L. v.d. Zande (RUG)

- Theo Pannetier (November 2017 - present), jointly superised with L. Bunnefeld (U. Stirling)

Raphael Scherrer (November 2017 - present), jointly supervised with G.S. van Doorn (RUG)

- Pedro Neves (October 2017 - present), jointly supervised with A.L. Pigot (UCL)

Megan Korte (July 2017 - present), jointly supervised with C. Smit and L. v.d. Zande (RUG)

- Elodie Wilwert (March 2017 - present), jointly supervised with M. Maan and L. v.d. Zande (RUG)

- Tiphaine Bailly (March 2017 - present), jointly supervised with B. Wertheim and J-C. Billeter (RUG)

- Francisco Richter (November 2015 - present), jointly supervised with E. Wit (RUG)

- Liang Xu (October 2015 - present)

Giovanni Laudanno (September 2015 - present), jointly supervised with B. Haegeman (CNRS)

- Leonel Herrera Alsina (March 2015 - present), jointly supervised with A.L. Pigot (UCL)

- Karen Bisschop (November 2014 – present), jointly supervised with D. Bonte (University of Ghent)

Kasper Hendriks (September 2014 – present), jointly supervised with M. Schilthuizen (Naturalis)

Richel Bilderbeek (September 2014 – present)

- Adriana Alzate Vallejo (March 2013 – present), jointly supervised with D. Bonte (University of Ghent)

Xiaoguang Du (September 2008 – present)

- Saleta Perez-Vila (February 2007 – present), jointly supervised with B. Wertheim (RUG)



Former PhD students

- Paul van Els (January 2016 - December 2018, PhD degree on 18 May 2018, PhD thesis)

- Thijs Janzen (September 2010 – November 2014, PhD degree on 27 March 2015, PhD thesis)

- Ellen van Velzen (January 2009 – October 2014, PhD degree on 2 March 2015, PhD thesis)

- Francisco Encinas-Viso (October 2008 – March 2013, PhD degree on 14 June 2013, PhD thesis)

- Xubing Liu (May 2011 – March 2013, PhD degree on 14 June 2013, PhD thesis)


Former postdocs

Josselin Cornuault (August 2015 - March 2017)

Alex Pigot (September 2013 – September 2016)






- DAISIE package for RSimulates and computes the (maximum) likelihood of a dynamical model of island biota assembly through speciation, immigration and extinction.

- GUILDS package for R (Author: T. Janzen). Implementation of sampling formulas for the unified neutral model of biodiversity and biogeography, with or without guild structure.

DAMOCLES package for R. Simulation and likelihood methods for a dynamical community assembly that accounts for phylogenetic history.

DDD package for R. Calculates the likelihood of diversity-dependent diversification models for a given data set of branching times of a phylogenetic tree.

PBD package for R. Calculates the likelihood of the lineage-based protracted speciation model for a given data set of branching times of a phylogenetic tree.





Viewable presentations


- Public Seelye lecture A simple view on biological complexity, New Zealand, November 2013

Predicting the past from the present. Hungary, August 2012


  1. Detecting the dependence of diversification on multiple traits from phylogenetic trees and trait data

    Herrera-Alsina, L., van Els, P. & Etienne, R. S. 26-Sep-2018 (Accepted/In press) In : Systematic biology. syy057

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. babette: BEAUti 2, BEAST2 and Tracer for R

    Bilderbeek, R. J. C. & Etienne, R. S. Sep-2018 In : Methods in ecology and evolution. 9, 9, p. 2034-2040 7 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. Opposite outcomes of coinfection at individual and population scales

    Gorsich, E. E., Etienne, R. S., Medlock, J., Beechler, B. R., Spaan, J. M., Spaan, R. S., Ezenwa, V. O. & Jolles, A. E. 17-Jul-2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. Stenseth, N. C. (ed.). 29 ed. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, Vol. 115, p. 7545-7550 6 p. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

  4. Using molecular phylogenies in island biogeography: It's about time

    Valente, L., Phillimore, A. B. & Etienne, R. Oct-2018 In : Ecography. 41, 10, p. 1684-1686 3 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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  1. The limits to ecological limits to diversification

    Etienne, R. (Speaker)

    Activity: ProfessionalTalk or presentation

  2. Stichting Vrienden van de Galápagos Eilanden

    Etienne, R. (Speaker)

    Activity: ProfessionalTalk or presentation

  3. Mathematical Models in Ecology and Evolution 2011

    Doorn, van, S. (Member of programme committee), Weissing, F. (Member of programme committee), Etienne, R. (Member of programme committee), Bakker, J. (Member of programme committee)

    Activity: ScientificOrganising an event

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Press / Media
  1. Number of species depends how you count them

    Rampal Etienne


    1 item of media coverage

    Press/Media: Expert Comment

  2. Island biodiversity: Stable but vulnerable

    Rampal Etienne


    3 items of media coverage

    Press/Media: Research

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