Professor Marcel Klaassen and a little birdie with much to tell

Imagine a non-stop 10,000-kilometre trip without in-flight movies and meals and solicitous cabin crew to bring you a pillow or a rug. Welcome to the world of a brave little bird, the sharp-tailed sandpiper.

Professor Marcel Klaassen and friend
Professor Marcel Klaassen and friend

Imagine a non-stop 10,000-kilometre trip without in-flight movies and meals and solicitous cabin crew to bring you a pillow or a rug.
Welcome to the world of a brave little bird, the sharp-tailed sandpiper – and Professor Marcel Klaassen.

Professor Klaassen is the newly installed Director of Deakin’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, and is regarded as one of the University’s key signings as it enters its next era of research growth under DVC (Research) Professor Lee Astheimer.

One of Professor Klaassen’s major research streams looks at the energy intake and the economic use of it by these marvellous little birds that each year make the trip from Siberia – sometimes via Alaska - to Australasia, and then back.

To do that research he has travelled to Siberia, to Alaska – and now to south-eastern Australia, to which the sandpipers fly each year to get away from the Siberian winter.

“The principle behind my research is simple: All animals must obtain and convert energy from their environments for everyday use, to fend off illnesses and to reproduce,” Professor Klaassen said.

“if they are good at that, they are successful, if not, they succumb.

“My research involves mainly birds and focuses on their reproductive, migratory and foraging behaviours and specifically how well these creatures cope with changes in their environment.

“So that’s a big part of the research I will be doing at Deakin.

“Some species cope with change, others don’t.

“The challenge is to find out how the species that do cope with change achieve that and see if we can use that information to mitigate the negative impacts on those that aren’t coping so well.”

Professor Klaassen’s journey to Australia with his family was a little more comfortable than the sandpipers.



He arrived in January from The Netherlands, where he was the Professor in Animal-Plant Interactions at the University of Utrecht and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology.

The choice of Australia was made at both the professional and the personal level.

“The job here was quite amazing,” he said of the offer to head up the Centre for Integrative Ecology.

“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially when the University is making such a substantial investment in ecology.

“At times I am overawed by the challenge, at other times I am really excited by it.

Professor Klaassen believes that in many respects, Australia is a huge and relatively untouched canvas in the field of ecology.

“There has already been a lot of good work done here in Australia,” he says.

“But a lot of ecological research over the years still has a European and American bias.

Excitement also filters into the personal reasons for coming to Australia – and Deakin’s Waurn Ponds Campus in particular.

Professor Klaassen’s former colleagues in The Netherlands provided an unusual farewell gift for all of his family  – surfing lessons.

Having just bought a block of land at Jan Juc, one beach away from the fabled Bells Beach, they are well placed to benefit from them.

“In the Netherlands I was a speed skater,” Professor Klaassen grinned.

“But I think I will stand a chance on a surf board. Already my daughter Hiske has been riding a wave board and I have been practising standing up on it.”

Professor Klaassen has two other daughters, Anna and Puck.

As well as their individual lessons, the Klaassen’s took in expert tips from the world’s best during the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach.

“We bought a family ticket for the whole event,” Professor Klaassen said, proudly showing the purple wristband that allowed him in to see the likes of Mick Fanning and Stephanie Gilmore.

It is apparent already the Klaassen’s will enjoy the warmth of southern hemisphere summers as much as the sharp-tailed sandpipers.

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