Adaptation and diversification of succulent plants

Comparative Evolutionary Biology and Systematics

The succulent life form is a tried and true strategy for flowering plants to thrive in arid environments. The adaptation to store water in tissues of one or several organs allows succulent plants to retain some physiological activity when external water supply has become temporarily unavailable. Succulence has evolved independently in at least 80 major lineages and includes widely known growth form types such as cactus-like stem succulents, rosette-forming leaf succulents as well as a bewildering diversity of caudiciform and pachycaul chamaephytes and phanerophytes.

We investigate the phylogenetic relationships among the dominant succulent plant lineages of the order Caryophyllales and study the structural modifications in stems and leaves that are related to storing and retaining water in succulent plant tissues.

In a large comparative study we explore the diversification of different lineages of succulents in arid areas of southern Africa and cast light onto the ecological drivers and historical events that determined their geographical distribution, temporal origin, morphological and anatomical characteristics, as well as community structure parameters.

Recent Publications

  • Morphology and Anatomy Support a Reclassification of the African Succulent Taxa of Senecio S.L. (Asteraceae: Senecioneae)
    Cicuzza, Daniele; Staheli, Danielle Sombra; Nyffeler, Reto; et al. 
    HASELTONIA, (23): 11-26; DEC 2017
  • A taxonomic backbone for the global synthesis of species diversity in the angiosperm order Caryophyllales 
    Patricia Hernández-Ledesma, Walter G. Berendsohn, Thomas Borsch, Sabine Von Mering, Hossein Akhani, Salvador Arias, Idelfonso Castañeda-Noa, Urs Eggli, Roger Eriksson, Hilda Flores-Olvera, Susy Fuentes-Bazán, Gudrun Kadereit, Cornelia Klak, Nadja Korotkova, Reto Nyffeler, Gilberto Ocampo, Helga Ochoterena, Bengt Oxelman, Richard K. Rabeler, Adriana Sanchez, Boris O. Schlumpberger & Pertti Uotila
    WILLDENOWIA, 45 (3): 281-383; DEC 2015
  • Evolutionary plant radiations: where, when, why and how? 
    Hughes, Colin E.; Nyffeler, Reto; Linder, H. Peter 
    NEW PHYTOLOGIST, 207 (2): 249-253, JUL 2015
  • Ecological and genetic differentiation of two subspecies of Saussurea alpina in the Western Alps 
    Author(s): Kreuzer, Marco; Tribsch, Andreas; Nyffeler, Reto 
    Source: ALPINE BOTANY 124(1): 49-58 APR 2014 
    Document Type: Article (Details)
  • August Wulfhorst (1861-1936) and his overlooked contributions on the flora of Angola 
    Author(s): Figueiredo, Estrela; Smith, Gideon F.; Nyffeler, Reto 
    Source: CANDOLLEA, 68 (1): 123-131 2013 
    Document Type: Article (Details)

PD Dr. Reto Nyffeler
University of Zurich
Department of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany
8008 Zurich

Tel: +41 (0)44 634 84 42

Research topics

  • Molecular phylogenetics
  • Biogeography
  • Taxonomy
  • Morphology and anatomy
  • Evolutionary biology



  • Geology and paleoclimatology
  • Ecophysiology
  • Community ecology
  • Environmental niche modeling