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Good-natured twins on the secret jungles in the city

In Dutch TV programme Early Birds, Marvin and Kevin Groen (26) showed viewers areas of nature in the city that often go unnoticed. These good-natured brothers - twins, in fact - were a big hit with the viewers. How much influence do they have on one another's studies and work?

‘Where are those hallucinatory plants again?' Kevin asks on a walk with Marvin in the Hortus Botanicus, their favourite haunt in Leiden. The brothers are currently living in Rotterdam, but still have close ties with Leiden University. Kevin studied Biology here and also started his PhD research in Leiden last year. Marvin is due to graduate this year in Biology and is also completing his study of Forest and Nature Management in Wageningen.


‘Hey, there's another of those ring-necked parakeets,' Marvin remarks, at which Kevin comments, 'Yep, there are now masses of them in the Netherlands since someone let a couple escape from an Amsterdam attic room.' You can't help noticing that they are always finishing off one another's sentences. 'We almost always like the same things, and that has a really stimulating effect. If he likes something, I often start to like it too and vice versa,' Marvin explains. Kevin continues, 'That's because we share the same DNA,' he says half laughing, half serious. 


Early Birds

The editors of the Early Birds TV programme were also charmed by the contagious enthusiasm of the mediagenic bearded brothers. Marvin did an internship there in 2016 and showed a video that he made together with Kevin for a local Rotterdam broadcaster. The film shows nature in the city, including an impressive colony of starlings at Rotterdam Central station. Early Birds gave the twins their own spot; one of the items they made was an affectionate feature on the many thousands of rats in Amsterdam. The more than 300 to 400,000 viewers per broadcast turned out to appreciate their super enthusiastic, at times somewhat bungling duo presentation. Soon the brothers will hear if they will hae the opportunity to present another feature in the new season.

Kevin: ‘We get a lot of positive reacations, at university, in the street and in cafés. For us, it's important to give people a positive feel about nagture, because then they will treat it better.'  Is Freek Vonk, who also a presenter and researcher, a good role model? Kevin: ‘Not really, although it is good that he makes people enthusiastic. That's something he does well, and children really love him.' Marvin: ‘With him, everything has to be spectacular, a bit like Crocodile Dundee. But animals are beautiful in themselves; you don't always need to pick them all up.' 

Where does their love of nature come from? Marvin: ‘We  were out in the natural environment with our parents a lot and we must have camped in every province at least five times.' Kevin: ‘We also had a great Biology teacher at secondary school, who was into the more adventurous side of Biology, like doing fieldwork in the middle of nowhere.’ 

Field research on Borneo and in the Himalayas

After secondary school they did each try going their own way. Marvin studied Technical Earth Sciences in Delft, but after a year switched to Biology in Leiden (‘I soon realised that the progrmme was all about oil extraction and I was looking for something greener'). Kevin opted for Life, Science & Technology, a joint programme taught by both Leiden University and the TU Delft. In his third year he went with Marvin to a lab practice session. 'We had to dissect a fish, or a rat. I thought it was fantastic and that's when I decided to study Biology in parallel with Life Science & Technology.’

Shortly afterwards the brothers went to Borneo to do fieldwork; one of the things they were studying  was frog species. Marvin: ‘That was tough and cold. We trekked through the mountains with our tent for three months; at night it was often -20!’  

Lions and albatrosses

Kevin started his PhD research in 2017 on the impact of human behaviour on the diet of lions in Kenya. He wants to find out whether lions start to eat other things if, for example, more parks are fenced in. ‘I will count prey and take samples of lion dung to analyse what they have eaten.' How to defend himself against a lion attack he has no idea: 'I'll find that out shortly.' Marvin: ‘I've done research on Spitsbergen, and I always had to have a gun with me in case of a bear attack.' He is due to graduate this year and then he too wants to do PhD research, preferably in a much colder region. 'My dream is to study an albatross colony on South Georgia, an island between South America and Antartica.’

Which of the skills or experiences you gained in Leiden do you value most?

Well, it's not Leiden's student club life, although they do have a good time with friends at Catena. Marvin says firmly, 'My most valuable experience is learning about taxonomy at Naturalis. I used samples of soil drillings from the last primeval forest in the Netherlands and identified the shells of beetles. Leiden is known for this kind of research internship at Naturalis which is very instructive and great fun.'

Kevin: ‘I'm happy with the combination of Life Science & Technology and Biology. I already learned a lot about DNA research during my bachelor's.' Marvin: ‘That's the future! Previously you had to take your net and scoop all the fish out of the water and then do a lot of research on them. Today you only need one sample from the water and you know just what's going on there. Old-style ecologists have had their day. Actually, Kevin's ruining my future.' Kevin: ‘Not really; it'll all work out OK.'


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