Biosystematics and evolutionary genomics

NTNU University Museum's research areas:

Biosystematics and evolutionary genomics

Biosystematics is the study of biological diversity, through the description of diversity and understanding of processes leading to evolutionary development.

The research focuses on deriving the history of all living beings on earth, through naming species, deriving relationships and understanding how species formation takes place.

Contact person: Hans Stenøien.



Norwegian rainforests are red-listed as endangered (EN) habitats in Norway. In this three years project we will map, for the first time, the overall species diversity of crustose lichens and lichenicolous fungi in the boreonemoral and boreal rainforests along the Norwegian west coast. We will monitor these forests for new, including cryptic, species at three different levels of diversity by using established and new sampling methods.

Contact person: Associate Professor Mika Bendiksby

Collaborators: Andreas Frisch (NTNU University Museum), Einar Timdal, Gunnhild Martinsen og Harald Bratli (Natural History Museum, University of Oslo), Jon Klepsland (BioFokus), Per Gerhard Ihlen (Asplan Viak), og Mats Wedin (Swedish Museum of Natural History). 

Duration: 2017-ongoing

Funding: The Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative)

Biodiversity estimates and red-list assessments will be flawed if undiscovered taxonomic diversity remains undetected. This project aims to reveal intraspecific genetic lineages (cryptic species) in red-listed species of lichens and vascular plants by combining genomic analyses (phytogeography and species delimitation) with distribution modelling. Both observation-only and specimen-based data will be used, including relevant old archived collections.

Contact person: Associate Professor Mika Bendiksby

Collaborators: Michael D. Martin, James Speed and Vibekke Vange (NTNU University Museum), Einar Timdal and Rune Halvorsen (Natural History Museum, University of Oslo) og Håkon Holien (NORD University).

Duration: 2017-ongoing

Funding: The Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative) and the NTNU University Museum.

The principal purpose of the present study has been to elucidate evolutionary relationships within subfamily Lamioideae using various molecular tools. Objectives: (1) identify major phylogenetic groups within subfamily Lamioideae, reveal their interrelationships, and to update their classification accordingly; (2) infer the biogeographic history of subfamily Lamioideae and subgroups, and relate it to climatic and geological events of the past; and, (3) investigate allopolyploid speciation.

Contact person: Associate Professor Mika Bendiksby

Collaborators: Yasaman Salmaki (Univ. of Teheran), Olof Ryding (Natural History Museum of Denmark), Bryan Drew (Univ. of Nebraska)

Duration: 2002-ongoing

Funding: The Norwegian Research Council (project no: 154145), Natural History Museum (University of Oslo), and NTNU University Museum.

Extended project page.

The polychaete family Nereididae is a large group with about 700 described species, in 45 genera. The phylogeny is unresolved, and our research deals with relationships between species as well as deeper phylogeny. Character homology between different groups and molecular evolution is studied. To reach the main aim we work on several smaller projects that will provide an understanding of the phylogeny of the family.

  • Contact person: Torkild Bakken
  • Collaborators: Robin Wilson (Museums Victoria, Australia), Chris Glasby (Darwin, Australia) and Cinthya Santos (Universidade Federal Fluminense, Brazil).
  • Project period: 1999 - ongoing

Sea slugs, or nudibranchs, had not been studied at all in Norway the past 60 years, until our project was initialised in 1997. We are studying diversity of species and their distribution in Norwegian waters, in total about 100 species are known. Several taxonomic problems warrant species delimitation and description. We use DNA barcoding to map and study the nudibranch fauna, its diversity and distribution.

  • Contact person: Torkild Bakken (project leader)
  • Collaborators: Jussi Evertsen (Guri Kunna High School), Bernard Picton (National Museum of Northern Ireland), Alexander Martynov (Zoological Museum, University of Moscow).
  • Project period: 1997 – ongoing.

Polychaete worms are among the most abundant organisms in the seabed sediments. In Norwegian waters, about 700 species are known, and many unknown. The main aim of the project is to provide new knowledge of polychaetes from coastal areas to the deep sea. Taxonomic challenges of species and species groups are investigated in terms of species delimitation and description, with careful morphological assessments and DNA barcoding as main tools. Patterns of species distribution is of particular interest.

  • Contact person: Torkild Bakken (project leader)
  • Collaborators: Jon Anders Kongsrud (University Museum of Bergen, University of Bergen), Eivind Oug (NIVA).
  • Project period: 2009 – ongoing.
  • Financial support: The project have received support from the Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative, and Norwegian Deepwater Programme. 

NorBOL is a network of Norwegian biodiversity institutions and individual scientists that contribute to the assembly and curation of a comprehensive library of standardized DNA sequences (DNA barcodes) of Norwegian fauna and flora. We also promote international collaboration for DNA barcoding of biodiversity, especially in the Polar regions.

DNA barcoding is a powerful tool for species identification from any type of tissue and from any type of life stage. Correct species identification is fundamental for all biological research, for conservation and management of biodiversity, and for a number of practical, commercial and forensic purposes. DNA barcodes are linked to voucher specimens in scientific collections (museums) and deposited in a public, open-access database (BOLD). Our effort is an integrated part of International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL).

More about NorBOL


Contact person: Torbjørn Ekrem

Funding: Research Council of Norway (FORINFRA), Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative)

Project period: 2013 - ongoing

Some genera of tribe Tanytarsini are very species rich, while others are rare and species poor. Some genera are geographically restricted while others are practically cosmopolitan. Some show special adaptations to the environment they live in while others are generalists.

In this project we wish to explore the evolutionary (phylogenetic) relationships among genera in Tanytarsini to:

  • Find the most likely evolutionary history of the tribe
  • See if geographical distribution and environmental adaptations can be explained by the phylogeny


Contact person: Professor Torbjørn Ekrem, researcher Elisabeth Stur

Collaborators: Erik Boström, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet; Wojciech Giłka, Universitetet i Gdansk; Endre Willassen, Universitetsmuseet i Bergen

Project period: Ongoing

Funding: NTNU

Tardigrades (water bears) are remarkable, microscopic animals that can be found in all ecosystems. They constitute an own phylum in the tree of life, and are famous for their ability to withstand extreme conditions in a dehydrated resting stage. Despite their facinating biology, knowledge of Norwegian tardigrades is still very poor and their diversity, distribution and ecological role in Norwegian forests is unknown. This project aims to investigate tardigrade diversity associated with different types of substrates in forests in Norway, evaluate the impact of forest management on tardigrade diversity and expand the recently initiated DNA barcode library of Norwegian tardigrades. We will also use environmental barcoding of substrates to test the effectiveness of this method in documenting tardigrade diversity and distribution. The project also aims to develop a comprehensive reference collection in a Norwegian museum.


Contact persons: Professor Torbjørn Ekrem, Forsker Elisabeth Stur

Collaborators: Roberto Guidetti (Universitetet i Modena og Reggio Emilia), Łukasz Kaczmarek (Adam Mickiewicz Universitetet i Poznań), K. Ingemar Jönsson (Högskolan i Kristianstad), Terje Meier (Oslo), Iver Gjerde (NIBIO), Kristian Hassel, Markus Majaneva, Tommy Prestø, Erik Boström, Aina Mærk Aspaas (NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet)

Project period: 2017-2019

Funding: Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre (Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative)

Sphaerodoridium cf minuta. Photo: Maria Capa, NTNU University Museum

Sphaerodoridae is a group of marine worms characterized by the presence of spherical tubercles over their surface.  They are scarcely known, probably due to their small size and low abundance. The relationships with other polychaetes, the systematics and classification of the group and their natural history are topics that require further investigations.

Project aims: 

  1. Study the relationships of this and other groups of marine worms
  2. Assess the monophyly of the currently accepted genera
  3. Test the homology of morphological features used in traditional classifications and species descriptions 
  4. Species delimitation in species complexes 
  5. Describe new species and re-describe those which descriptions are incomplete. 

Contact person: Maria Capa

Project period: Sept 2012-Sept 2015

Funding: NTNU, Synthesys (EU)

Torkild Bakken, NTNU University Museum
Maite Aguado, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

A fan worm (Bispira melanostigma) projects its feeding tentacles out of its protective tube. The tentacles are covered in minute compound eyes that help the worm avoid predation. Photo credit: Michael Bok.Fan worms (Annelida, Sabellida) show the largest variation of eyes among the animal kingdom, with diverse structure and levels of sophistication and therefore offer a great opportunity to be used as model organisms for assessing the evolution of eyes and photoreceptor cells in Metazoa. Similarly, sandcastle worms (Sabellariidae) bear eyes in the medial organ with a similar role to the radiolar eyes in fan worms. But sabellariids and sabellids are not closely related and comparison of their eyes, at different levels (structural, functional and molecular), may provide important information about the nature of their photoreceptors. Examining the emergence of novel visual systems may increase our understanding of how the first eyes evolved among the sedentary annelids and beyond.

Aims of the project

  1. Assess the diversity of eyes in Sabellidae and Sabellariidae and their evolutionary history.
  2. Address the association between the morphological and structural eye display and the genetic components responsible for it.
  3. Find the structural and molecular similarities between sabellids and sabellariids that trigger analogous rudimentary visually guided behaviors and relate these to the wider spectrum of animal visual systems.


Contact person: Maria Capa

Project period: Sept 2016-ongonig


Mike Bok, Lund University, Department of Biology, Sweden.

Megan Porter, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Biology

Pat Hutchings, Australian Museum Research Institute, Sydney.

Funding: Australian Museum Research Institute Visiting Research Fellowship, Synthesys  (EU).

Pseudopotamilla sp. from Lizard Island, Australia. Photo credit: Maria Capa Notaulax sp. from Lizard Island, Australia. Photo credit: Maria Capa

Sabellidae is one of the most diverse and ubiquitous polychaete families with over 400 nominal species described to date, classified in 40 genera. They are benthic tubeworms, found from fresh waters to full marine conditions, and from intertidal to abyssal depths all over the world. The radiolar crown is a hear structure formed by numerous feathery-like appendages, responsible for these animals being commonly known as feather-duster worms. Although there have been several attempts of generating phylogenetic hypothesis about their relationships with other polychaetes and within the group, results are still not fully stable and resolved.

Aim of project:

  1. Describe the diversity of fan worms found in several parts of the world
  2. Asses their evolutionary relationships


Contact person: Maria Capa

Project period: Sept 2012-Sept 2017

Funding: NTNU


Anna Murray, Australian Museum Research Institute, Sydney.

Branchiomma sp. From Lizard Island, Australia. Photo credit: Maria CapaAn accurate delimitation of species is crucial from a taxonomic and systematic perspective, particularly from a biodiversity, conservation, policy-making and ecological point of view.

Delineation of species from DNA sequences and molecular phylogenies are of increasing interest, most aiming to resolve the status of species complexes, broadly distributed species or introduced species. In this line, methodological advances have occurred rapidly in the last decade accompanying theoretical issues related to species concepts, biological properties of the taxa analyzed and sources of data investigated.

Contact person: Maria Capa

Project period: Sept 2012-ongoing

Funding: NTNU, Artsdatabanken


Torkild Bakken, NTNU University Museum
Joan Pons, Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA), Esporles
Arne Nygren, Sjöfartsmuseet Akvariet, Göteborg, Sweden

In this project we apply recently developed spatial phylogenetics methods to explore spatial biodiversity within the entire vascular flora of Norway, which contains about 2880 plant species. For this, we use genetic sequence data both publicly available and derived from herbarium collections to analyse spatial patterns of vascular plant diversity, centres of endemism and phytogeographic regions that developed in response to recent cycles of glaciation.

Contact person: Michael Martin

Project period: 2016-2018.

This study is conducted in collaboration with Prof. Brent Mishler at University of California, Berkeley (California, USA).

Funding: NTNU University Museum.

Species of the chironomid genus Cricotopus are known from all geographical regions and have immature stages in running and standing water. Several species are difficult to separate on morphology and many are assumed to be unknown to science. Additionally, hybridization is thought to occur between some species. In collaboration with colleagues from USA and Japan we investigate the species boundaries of the sylvestris-group and use molecular and morphological data to analyze the species diversity.

Contact person: Researcher Elisabeth Stur

Collaborators: Prof. Torbjørn Ekrem (NTNU University Museum), Prof. Susan Gresens (Towson University, Maryland), Researcher Natsuko Kondo (NIES, Tsukuba).

Status: ongoing

Funded by NTNU, Towson University, NIES

Photo: Corynoneura male from Jonsvatn (Trondheim). Photo: Aina Mærk AspaasSpecies of the genus Corynoneura are among the smallest chironomids we know of. Most species are only 1-2 mm long. In this project, we revise existing species, examine types and describe species new to science. Genetic data and morphology are used in an integrative approach to analyze species boundaries and DNA barcodes are used to associate different life stages. The project utilizes material and data generated through previous projects funded by the Norwegian Taxonomy Initiative and NorBOL.

Contact: Researcher Elisabeth Stur

Project period: 2015-2020

Collaborators: Dr. Sofia Wiedenbrug (München), Prof. Torbjørn Ekrem

Funding: NTNU, private.

Domestication has had a tremendous effect on crop species—altering phenotypes, decreasing effective population sizes, and reducing genetic diversity. In addition to transforming the species under selection, it is increasingly understood that domestication also impacts crop pathogens. Ustilago maydis, the fungus that causes corn smut disease, has a paradoxical history as a scourge to farmers and a delicacy in Mexican cuisine. Surprisingly, genetic data suggest living U. maydis individuals—including those infecting the wild teosinte progenitor—descend from a common ancestor dating to the domestication of maize. To investigate whether recent maize breeding or propagation of the fungus for food may obscure the pathogen’s evolutionary history, we are sequencing genomes from historic corn smut collected at theUniversity of California Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium and the U.S. National Fungus Collections. These historical samples are processed in the NTNU University Museum’s specialized Clean Lab. In addition, modern U. maydis accessions are being used to generate a genomic reference panel to provide context for the historic specimens.
Contact person: Associate professor Michael Martin

Collaborators: Assistant professor Benjamin Blackman (UC Berkeley), Dr. Nathan Wales (University of Toulouse)

Period: 2017-2018

Funding: Peder Sather Center for Advanced Study

Phytophthora infestans is a fungus-like organism that causes late blight disease of potatoes and which, after introduction to Europe in the 1840s, caused the Irish potato famine. Its ability to overcome the defenses of its potato host via rapid genome evolution makes P. infestans a persistent threat to global potato crops. Currently this threat can be definitely controlled only through repeated applications of fungicides. This project applies population genomic approaches to a diverse isolates collected from Mexico, the putative center of origin of P. infestans. We use bioinformatic tools to assess the diversity of infection-related genes in order to characterize future threats to global potato production. We are also examining global genetic structure in order to reconstruct this pathogen’s pathways of migration, as well as its evolutionary history on different New World hosts.

Contact person: Associate professor Michael Martin
Collaborators: Professor Niklaus Grunwald (Oregon State University), Assistant Professor Erica Goss (University of Florida), Dhirendra Niroula (NTNU)

Period: Ongoing

Funding: NTNU

The ragweeds (Asteraceae, genus Ambrosia) are a group of about 40 species of plants adapted to wind-pollination and largely native to North America. The center of diversity of this genus appears to be in the Sonoran Desert region of North America, although some species are widespread throughout North America, and others occur mostly in South America. Some species are desert plants, and many are also weedy pioneers. The most successful and widespread Ambrosia weed is the globally distributed invasive species Ambrosia artemisiifolia (common ragweed), which belongs to a highly specialized complex whose members range across North America. The evolutionary relationships between ragweed species are confused, especially in collections from the Caribbean, S. America, Europe, and West Africa. We are using low-depth genomic sequencing and de novo assembly tools to generate a whole chloroplast genome sequence for every member of the genus Ambrosia in an attempt to resolve the evolutionary relationships in this taxonomically difficult genus. Special focus will be given to A. maritima, which has a curious distribution in southern Europe, Israel, and possibly Africa, and may be the only ragweed species naturalized in the Old World.

Contact person: Associate professor Michael Martin
Collaborators: Professor Gerhard Karrer (University of Natural Resources and Life Science, Austria), Dr. Péter Poczai (University of Helsinki)

Period: Ongoing

Funding: NTNU

Studying invasive plants offers opportunities to answer fundamental evolutionary questions about whether parallel adaptation to similar introduced environments affects the same genomic regions. Ambrosia artemisiifolia (common ragweed) is an annual weed that is native to North America. In Europe, it became invasive upon introduction during the late 19th century and is today established on all continents except Antarctica. Its highly allergic pollen is the main cause of hay fever, and the plant presents a major cost to public health in many areas. We combine genomic data from historic herbarium sheets with modern data from both the native (North America) and introduced (Europe) ranges to infer temporal changes in the population structure.

Contact person: Associate professor Michael Martin
Collaborators: Assistant professor Kay Hodgins (University of Melbourne), Professor Tom Gilbert (University of Copenhagen), François Bretagnolle (University of Burgundy)

Period: 2016-2020

Funding: NTNU

The Galápagos archipelago is a hotspot of biodiversity and an invaluable microcosm for studying the processes of evolution. The islands are home to the endemic plant genus Scalesia, whose remarkable connection to Asteraceae (the daisy/sunflower family) was first recorded by Charles Darwin. All are descendants of a daisy-like ancestor from the west coast of South America that arrived to the newly forming volcanic islands less than 4 million years ago. Then occurred a rapid radiation into 17 species with herbaceous qualities and astounding morphological diversity that ranges from woody rainforest canopy species to small shrubs that grow directly from bare lava rock. Known as the botanical equivalent of Darwin’s finches, the plants are famously specialized even amongst the organic riches of the Galápagos, and many of these threatened species are important members of the islands’ endemic vegetation. But as their a rapid radiation left these species highly invariant at nuclear genetic markers, biogeographic relationships with the genus are still completely unknown. We are using diverse genomic approaches to explore the evolution and diversification of this fascinating group.

Contact person: Associate professor Michael Martin
Collaborators: Professor Tom Gilbert (University of Copenhagen), Professor Ole Seberg (University of Copenhagen), Assistant professor Gitte Pedersen (University of Stockholm)

Period: Ongoing

Funding: NTNU

Mapping uncharted diversity: a first comprehensive survey of lichenicolous fungi in Norway.


Contact person: Associate Professor Mika Bendiksby

Duration: 2020-2023

The project MULTIWHALE will study the complex question of how multiple stressors (anthropogenic pollutants, disturbance/whale watching activities and fluctuating prey resources) affect biological responses such as gene expression, endocrine, physiological, and behavioural responses at the individual and population level in Norwegian killer whales in the context of ecological differences within the population.

We combine field and modelling studies to understand the long term and short-term effects of multiple stressors, and if the effects are equal within the population. Some individuals eat seals in addition to fish, which may make them more susceptible to the effects of anthropogenic stressors.

The MULTIWHALE results are important for understanding of the cumulative response in killer whale health and status, conservation of killer whales in Norwegian waters, the management of their harvestable prey types (seals and fish), and for sustainable whale watching.

Contact person: Associate professor Andrew Foote

Norway is generally considered to host a large diversity of rotifer species, having perhaps 500 of the global 2000 species, based on gross best estimates. The majority is found in shallow freshwater locations. Thus, considering the current known species number is around 310 species in fresh water (347 in total across all nature types), this group holds a large potential for containing new species for Norway.

In addition to rotifers, we also expect that coastal fishless ponds may be a hotspot for groups of invertebrates within other taxa that are currently classified as red listed and may additionally host new species. Furthermore, by completing a barcode library for rotifers, these traditionally taxonomic demanding organisms will have a significantly decreased work load required for future distribution mapping.


  • Markus Majaneva, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research
  • Diego Fontaneto, Water Research Institute of Italy
  • Erling Brekke, Rådgivende Biologer A/S

Contact person: Glenn Dunshea

Understanding speciation has been one of the most fundamental scientific questions being pursued the last 200 years.

Traditionally, the two main types of speciation have been classified as allopatric and sympatric speciation. Allopatric speciation that takes place when there is a physical barrier that prevents interbreeding between populations, while sympatric speciation is two populations diversifying and becoming genetically isolated while remaining at the same place. In plants, including bryophytes, speciation can also take place through hybridization events with a doubling of the chromosome number of the new species.

Peat mosses (Sphagnum) are the main peat producers and carbon sink in terrestrial boreal ecosystems, and understanding their diversity and ecological function is of crucial importance. Peat mosses consist of 300-500 species worldwide, and Sphagnum taxonomy is notoriously difficult, not least due to frequent hybridization between taxa.

We think that gene flow between species occurs relatively frequently and use genetic markers (SNP) to estimate levels of within species and between species gene flow. We explore factors associated with within species gene flow. Also, we see how much between species gene flow exist. The importance of incomplete lineage sorting (ILS), due to recent speciation events, is compared to between species gene flow. This project explores fundamental questions in evolutionary biology related to how biodiversity originates in species, how it is maintained and what defines species in an ecologically important and highly diverse genus


The main goal of this project is to discover new species to Norway and science. We will search for species currently known from the Alps and Arctic regions.

There will be a focus on species groups with high potential for discovering new species to science. In addition, the project aims at increasing the knowledge of the autecology and distribution of bryophytes in Norwegian mountains. This knowledge will be used to improve the Nature in Norway nature-type system (NiN) through generalized species lists.

Thirdly we aim at collecting fresh material of as many bryophyte taxa as possible for barcoding. Barcoding of Norwegian specimens will be an important contribution and a supplement to the ongoing barcoding of the Norwegian bryophyte flora.

The project is organized with six field meetings where national and international bryophyte experts meet up with master students and members from Moseklubben (Norwegian Bryological Society) to survey selected areas and exchange knowledge. 


  • Hans H. Blom, NIBIO
  • Rune Halvorsen NHM, UiO
  • Torbjørn Høitomt and John Gunnar Bryjulvsrud, Biofokus
  • Magni O. Kyrkjeeide, NINA
  • Kristin Wangen, Miljøfaglig Utredning
  • Leif Appelgren, Ecofact

The Norwegian Parliament has decided that an independent investigation of the origin of the Scandinavian wolf, and degree of hybridization with dogs, is to be carried out.

The NTNU University Museum, together with the University of Copenhagen, is doing this work, with a project based on whole genome sequencing and subsequent analysis of a large number of wolves from Scandinavia and the rest of the wolf's distribution area.

The final report will be finalized towards the end of 2021.

Project management: