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Jacco van Rijssel

Dr. J.C. (Jacco) van Rijssel, Research associate - Endless forms, Lake Victoria cichlids


Email: jacco.vanrijssel@wur.nl
Phone: +31 (0)71 52 74 503
Room number: not applicable
“Using museum specimens to reveal past and present patterns of selection”

As for many biologists, my first love for biology started with the fascination for dinosaurs rather than the world of extant creatures. During my childhood, my grandfather introduced me to aquatic biology by teaching me how to fish, which shifted my interest to living vertebrates. This interest was fuelled by the exposure to the vastly diverse wildlife of the African continent and I became interested in the ecology and evolution of vertebrates. During my study biology I was able to combine my love for fish and Africa and was fortunate enough to continue this combination until present day.


During my Bachelor at Leiden University, I gained ecomorphological research experience by conducting an internship at the Integrative Zoology department where we tested the effects of swimming on testis development in European eel. I continued with a Master in Evolutionary and Ecological Sciences by studying the effects op anthropogenic noise on European blackbird song. After spending half a year in Cameroon conducting research on African lion ecology and livestock conflicts at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), I obtained my Masters degree in 2008.

Intrigued by the study system, in combination with with the possibility to use the extensive and unique Lake Victoria cichlids of Naturalis, I started a PhD at Leiden University on the adaptive responses to environmental changes in Lake Victoria cichlids in 2009. After obtaining my PhD in 2014 I continued as a Postdoc in the lab of Ole Seehausen at EAWAG and the University of Bern in Switzerland.


Research interest

My research interests lie in the evolutionary ecology of vertebrates. More specifically, I am interested in how organisms adapt to (changes in) their environment, how they speciate and how they eventually radiate (or not). During my PhD, I worked on adaptive responses to environmental changes in Lake Victoria cichlids. This project showed that these haplochromine cichlids were rapidly responding to environmental changes by changing their ecology and morphology in an adaptive way.



ichtyology, cichlids, adaptive radiation, ecomorphology, adaptation, speciation, phenotypic plasticity, lake victoria, africa

Current research topics

1. Constraints to speciation

The Lake Victoria cichlids are famous for their extensive and extremely fast adaptive radation which resulted in over 500 species varying in colour and trophic morphology. Cichlid radiations tend to occur in many African lakes and can often be predicted by lake surface area, depth, solar energy and the occurence of sexual dichromatism in cichlid species. However, cichlid radiations also occur in small, shallow lakes while deeper, larger lakes sometimes seem to harbour only one or two cichlid species. One of my current projects is to unravel why some of these East-African cichlid lineages have diversified while others cichlid lineages have failed to do so by using morphological, ecological and genomic approaches.


2. Detecting patterns of selection in preserved specimens

Lake Victoria cichlids have shown to be able to respond to rapid environmental changes in captivity as in the wild. These fish are able to adapt their morphology and ecology within a timespan of 3 years under natural conditions. 


  • Prof. Dr. Ole Seehausen. Institute for Ecology and Evolution, University of Bern (IEE). EAWAG, Department of Fish Ecology and Evolution, Kastanienbaum, Switzerland.
  • Prof. Dr. Robert E. Hecky, Large Lakes Observatory (LLO),University of Minnesota Duluth, USA. 
  • Dr. Jan Wanink. Koeman and Bijkerk bv. Ecological Research and Consultancy, Haren, The Netherlands
  • Dr. Mary A. Kishe-Machumu, Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania



The HEST collection of haplochromine cichlids from Lake Victoria(East Africa) collected from 1977-2011.



Available student projects


Moser F.N., van Rijssel J.C., Ngatunga B., Mwaiko S., Seehausen O*. (2018) The origin and future of an endangered crater lake endemic; phylogeography and ecology of Oreochromis hunteri and its invasive relatives. Hydrobiologia doi: 10.1007/s10750-018-3780-z

Moser F.N.van Rijssel J.C.Mwaiko S.Meier J.I.Ngatunga B.Seehausen O*. (2018) The onset of ecological diversification 50 years after colonization of a crater lake by haplochromine cichlid fishes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0171

van Rijssel, J.C.*, Moser, F.N., Frei D., Seehausen, O*. (2018). Prevalence of disruptive selection predicts extent of species differentiation in Lake Victoria cichlids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2630

Katunzi, E.F.B., Onyango, P.O., Mahongo, Shigalla B., Kishe-Machumu, M.A., van Rijssel, J.C., Kayanda, R.J., Mgaya Yunus D. (2017). Historical Perspectives and Trends in Fisheries Research in Tanzania. In: Y.D. Mgaya, S.B. Mahongo (eds.), Lake Victoria Fisheries Resources, Monographiae Biologicae 93, Springer International Publishing, pp 11-35.

Abila R., Akoll P., Albertson C., Antunes D., Banda T., Bills R., Bulirani A., Chocha Manda A., Cohen A.S., Cunha-Saraiva F., Derycke S., Donohue I., Du M., Dudu A.M., Egger B., Fritsche K., Frommen J.G., Gante H.F., Genner MJ., Härer A., Hata H., Irvine K., Isumbisho P., Janssens de Bisthoven L., Jungwirth A., Kaleme P., Katongo C., Kéver L., Koblmüller S., Konings A., Lamboj A., Lemmel-Schaedelin F., Machado Schiaffino G., Martens K., Masilya P., Meyer A., More H.L., Musilova Z., Muterezi F., Muzumani R., Ntakimazi G., Okello W., Phiri H., Pialek L., Plisnier P.D., Raeymaekers J.A.M., Rajkov J., Rican O., Roberts R., Salzburger W., Schoen I., Sefc K.M., Singh P., Skelton P., Snoeks J., Schneider K., Sturmbauer C., Svardal H., Svensson O., Torres Dowdall J., Turner G.F., Tyers A., van Rijssel J.C., van Steenberge M., Vanhove M.P.M., Verheyen E.*, Weber A-T., Weyl O., Ziegelbecker A., Zimmermann H. (2016). Oil extraction imperils Africa's Great Lakes. Science 354: 561-562.

Van Rijssel, J. C.*, Hecky, R. E. Kishe-Machumu, M.A., Meijer, S., Pols, J.,Van Tienderen, K., Ververs, J., Wanink, J.H., Witte, F. (2016) Climate variabilty in combination with eutrophication drives adaptive responses in the gills of Lake Victoria cichlids. Oecologia 182: 1187-1201.

Kishe-Machumu, M.A.**, van Rijssel, J.C.***, Poste, A., Hecky, R.E., Witte, F. (2016) Stable isotope evidence from formalin preserved specimens indicates dietary shift and increasing diet overlap for haplochromine cichlids in Lake Victoria. Hydrobiologia 791: 155–173.

van Rijssel, J.C.*, Hecky, R.E, Kishe-Machumu, M.A., Witte, F. (2016). Changing ecology of Lake Victoria cichlids and their environment: Evidence from C13 and N15 analyses. Hydrobiologia 791: 175–191

Cho, S.W., van Rijssel, J.C., Witte F., de Bakker, M.A.G., Richardson, M.K*. 2015. The sonic hedgehog signaling pathway and the development of pharyngeal arch derivatives in Haplochromis piceatus, a Lake Victoria cichlid. Journal of Oral Biosciences 57: 148-156.

Kishe-Machumu, M.A.*, van Rijssel, J.C., Wanink, JH, Witte, F. (2015).Differential recovery and spatial distribution pattern of haplochromine cichlids in the Mwanza Gulf of Lake Victoria. Journal of Great Lakes Research 41: 454-462. 

van Rijssel J.C.*, Hoogwater ES, Kishe-Machumu MA, van Reenen E, Spits KV, van der Stelt RC, Wanink JH, Witte F (2015) Fast adaptive responses in the oral jaw of Lake Victoria cichlids. Evolution 69(1): 179-189.

Downing, A. S., E. Van Nes, J. Balirwa, J. Beuving, P. Bwathondi, L. J. Chapman, I. J. M. Cornelissen, I. G. Cowx, K. Goudswaard, R. E. Hecky, J. H. Janse, A. Janssen, L. Kaufman, M. A. Kishe-Machumu, J. Kolding, W. Ligtvoet, D. Mbabazi, M. Medard, O. C. Mkumbo, E. Mlaponi, A. T. Munyaho, L. A. J. Nagelkerke, R. Ogutu-Ohwayo, W. O. Ojwang, H. K. Peter, D. Schindler, O. Seehausen, D. Sharpe, G. M. Silsbe, L. Sitoki, R. Tumwebaze, D. Tweddle, K. E. Van de Wolfshaar, H. Van Dijk, E. Van Donk, J. C. Van Rijssel, P. A. M. Van Zwieten, J. H. Wanink, F. Witte, and W. M. Mooij. 2014. Coupled human and natural system dynamics as key to the sustainability of Lake Victoria’s ecosystem services. Ecology and Society 19(4): 31. 

van Rijssel, J. C*. Adaptive responses to environmental changes in Lake Victoria cichlids (2014) 160 pp. Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands, Dissertation.

Witte, F., Kishe-Machumu, M.A., Mkumbo, O.C., Wanink, J.H., Goudswaard, P.C., van Rijssel, J.C.* & van Oijen, M.J.P. The fish fauna of Lake Victoria during a century of human induced perturbations. In: J. Snoeks & A. Getahun (eds), Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on African Fish and Fisheries, Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, 22-26 September 2008. Tervuren: Royal Museum for Central Africa, 'Zoological Documentation Online Series', pp 49-66.

Tumenta, P.N.*, Visser, H.D., van Rijssel, J.C., Muller, L., de Iongh, H.H. Funston, P.J.,& de Haes, H.A.U. (2013) Lion predation on livestock and native wildlife in Waza National Park, northern Cameroon. Mammalia DOI: 10.1515/mammalia-2012-0063. 

van Rijssel, J.C.*, & Witte, F. (2013) Adaptive responses in resurgent Lake Victoria cichlids over the past 30 years. Evolutionary Ecology 27: 253-267.

Van der Meer, H.J., van Rijssel, J.C.*, Wagenaar, L.C. & Witte, F. (2012) Photopic adaptations to a changing environment in two Lake Victoria cichlids. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 106: 328-341.

Ripmeester, E.A.P.*, Kok, J.S., van Rijssel, J.C. & Slabbekoorn, H. (2010) Habitat-related birdsong divergence: a multi-level study on the influence of territory density and ambient noise in European blackbirds. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 64: 409-418.

Tumenta, P.N.*, Kok, J.S., van Rijssel, J.C., Buij, R., Croes, B.M., Funston, P.J., de Iongh, H.H. & de Haes, H.A.U. (2010) Threat of rapid extermination of the lion (Panthera leo leo) in Waza National Park, Northern Cameroon. African Journal of Ecology 48: 888-894.

 * Corresponding author

** Contributed equally to the paper