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Theunis Piersma awarded Spinoza Prize

06 June 2014

University of Groningen ecologist Theunis Piersma is one of the lucky recipients of a Spinoza Prize 2014. He has been awarded the highest science prize in the Netherlands for his research on migratory birds. He will invest the prize money, € 2.5 million, in research on the influence of the environment on the migratory behaviour of knots, godwits and spoonbills.

Theunis Piersma Photo: NWO/ Ivar Pel
Theunis Piersma Photo: NWO/ Ivar Pel

Piersma studied at and gained his PhD from the University of Groningen. In 2003 he was appointed Professor of Animal Ecology. One of his working areas is the Wadden Sea, but his interest in migratory birds (mainly the knot initially) has taken him all over the world. A subspecies of this bird has even been named after Piersma: Calidris canutus piersmai.

Theunis Piersma has always been a strong advocate of the preservation of the natural environment of the Wadden Sea. He also researches the decline in numbers of meadow birds such as the godwit in the southwestern corner of Friesland, where he lives. On the international front he promotes the preservation of important foraging and short-stop areas for migratory birds, including a huge estuary area in the Yellow Sea near China, which is being threatened by a reclamation scheme.

Piersma was appointed to a new chair in Global Flyway Ecology in 2012, sponsored by a collaboration between the University of Groningen, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Vogelbescherming Nederland. He has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2009.

The Spinoza Prize money will enable Piersma to research the influence of the environment on the behaviour of migratory birds. In his opinion, the role of genes is heavily overestimated. Together with Jan van Gils, Piersma published the book The Flexible Phenotype , in which he claims that the environment is what influences the genes.

‘We don’t know much yet about how the lifetimes of birds and migratory birds take shape’, says Piersma. ‘There are definitely hereditary aspects to migration, but throughout their lives birds also learn a lot from each other, and they make their own observations. For example, they react to the circumstances they encounter during their journeys. Technological developments, for example ever smaller transmitters and new satellite and internet technology, now make it possible to follow individual birds or migratory birds throughout their lives.’

More information can be found on the University of Groningen website and in this press release.

Information about the Spinoza Prize is available from NWO. Previous Groningen winners include George Sawatzky (1996), Dirkje Postma (2000) and Ben Feringa (2004).

Last modified:21 December 2018 10.16 a.m.

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