The voice of an ecologist and nature conservationist has fallen silent – Professor Ilkka Hanski 1953-2016

Finnish nature research lost its best known voice after the passing of Ilkka Hanski. Hanski, who made a long and impressive career, contributed to population, evolution and nature conservation biology. The Metapopulation Research Centre, led by Hanski, is focused on studying the effects of fragmentation on species ecology and evolution. The Glanville fritillary butterfly (Melitaea cinxia) is the model species for this research, and lives in meadows and pastures of the Åland Islands in Finland. The butterfly research helps to understand how populations occupy and disappear from fragmented patches (pastures and meadows), and how this affects the features occurring in these populations. In addition to Åland, Hanski has ongoing studies in Madagascar and Borneo. These dung beetle studies have focused on speciation processes and the effects of forest loss on species viability. In his last years Hanski also studied the influence of natural biodiversity on human well-being. For example, biodiversity was found to affect the occurrence of asthma and allergies. Hanski was awarded several prizes for his career, the latest being the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award of Ecology and Conservation Biology earlier this year.

The Glanville fritillary butterfly acts as a model species for the metapopulation theory. The family groups of larvae spin silken webs for their protection. © Sari Holopainen

The Glanville fritillary butterfly acts as a model species for the metapopulation theory. The family groups of larvae spin silken webs for their protection. © Sari Holopainen


Wolf population management – problems in every direction

The wolf is currently quite the hot potato in Finland. In fact, wolves are such a burning topic, that finding neutral information on the current state of the species and on hunting it can be difficult.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_wolf

Wolf pup in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Wolves form packs of several individuals to optimize their ability to hunt moose and deer, their staple food. A pack is run by an alpha pair, or a male and female wolf that have mated for life. The other individuals in a pack do not produce offspring, and young individuals may wander between packs to find mates or raise their position in the hierarchy. Alpha pairs are what keep a pack together.

The wolf is designated an endangered (EN) species in Finland, and strictly protected in the European Union (EU). The Finnish wolf population grew during the early 2000s, due to increased protection and additional individuals moving in from Russia. This increased both the incidence of damage caused by wolves (e.g. to hunting dogs) and the number of wolf sightings around human habitation, leading to dissatisfaction in wolf conservation measures and increased poaching. The wolf population began declining in 2007 due to widespread poaching, which in turn angered conservation organizations and the EU. Since then the wolf population size has seesawed back and forth, and confrontations between various interest groups have escalated.

To alleviate the wolf conflict, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry decided to implement a two-year trial wolf hunt in 2015–2016, aimed to control the population. The effects of the cull will be evaluated after this period. The trial cull is based on a wolf management plan, which attempts to incorporate both the requirements of people living in wolf territory and that of wolf conservation. The management plan is territory-based, meaning all actions are planned per wolf pack and territory.

The management plan determines the smallest viable wolf population as 25 breeding pairs. The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) will produce an estimate for the country’s total wolf population, and based on this evaluation the Ministry determines the largest yearly quota that can be culled using population control permits. However, this quota does not automatically have to be reached.

Population control permits are granted for hunting young individuals, which most likely have the smallest impact on the vitality of a pack. These permits can also be granted for hunting problematic individuals that e.g. repeatedly enter yards or come close to humans. Population control permits can only be granted to target wolf packs that produce litters, or in special conditions on packs in areas where the species has a stronghold. In addition to population control permits, wolves can also be hunted with special permits granted for damage control or by law enforcement. These two permit types are granted only when dealing with problem wolves.

Wolf population fluctuations and management will continue to cause problems in the future. Various interest groups have lost trust in each other and in the Ministry’s wolf management plan. Accommodating both the protection and management of an extremely endangered top predator is very difficult in a situation where said species also causes damage to and fear in certain interest groups. Additionally, protecting the Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus), another extremely endangered species, requires straightforward action plans in terms of the wolf. Population levels of the Finnish forest reindeer are believed to have suffered because of the dense wolf population in the district of Kainuu.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_wolf_hunting_management

Wolf in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen

The complete protection of the wolf, a management regime in practice at the beginning of the 2000s, obviously failed to work. The population grew initially, but was quickly bulldozed by unsustainable poaching. The population decreased up to 15% a year between 2006 and 2010. The population was approximately 250–270 individuals at the end of 2006, but by the end of 2007 the level had dropped to 200. Complete protection of the species crossed a line in Finnish society, after which poaching was used as an excuse for preventing future damage – a situation that should not be allowed to form. Returning to a similar conservation model would require intensive intervention to stop poaching.

The two-year trial cull was completed at the end of February. Luke evaluated the Finnish wolf population at 220–245 individuals prior to the trial period in 2015. Two hunting seasons later, in March 2016, population levels were estimated at 200–235 individuals. When looking solely at these numbers, the cull has managed to keep the population fairly level. However, 43 wolves were shot during the two-year cull, and over half of these (24) were over two-year-old individuals. It is easy to see that the cull has not met its goal of only targeting young individuals. In fact, a staggering 21% of the culled individuals were alphas. And this level may still increase once age determination is complete for all the culled individuals. Such a high number is unsustainable in terms of future hunting management.

Culling each of these alphas has either caused the weakening or disbanding of a pack, leading to higher numbers of individuals or small groups of wolves roaming around unable to optimize their hunting. This is exactly the way to create more problem wolves that willingly come close to human habitation or begin killing hunting dogs. Additionally, several worrying cases have surfaced, where wolves have intentionally been driven towards habitation or have been deliberately wounded to gain more population control or damage control permits for hunting these “problem individuals”. The goal of the wolf management plan is to uphold a viable population in Finland, but at this current rate, the trial wolf cull also appears to have failed.

What next? The future of the wolf cull will be determined during the fall of 2016. The wolf is obviously a species that causes so many societal conflicts, errors in management, and people taking the law into their own hands, that we need to question whether the wolf should remain a species that can be hunted by the general public. Nevertheless, the wolf population does need both management and protection in the future. Perhaps Finland should consider a model where wolf hunting is carried out solely by the (game) authorities. The population control process could remain the same as before, which would allow the cull of problematic individuals and the regulation of pack sizes. But the professional skills of the proper authorities would ensure that overreactions and the killing of alpha individuals could be prevented, which in the long-term could help stabilize the whole population and mitigate wolf-human conflicts.

4 reasons why vanishing deadwood is a great catastrophe

Deadwood amounts have dramatically declined all over the world. Here I present four reasons why deadwood is so important:

1. Deadwood remains in the forest for a long time
When wood decays, it transforms into carbon dioxide, water and minerals. These are exactly the materials that a living tree binds during photosynthesis. The complete degradation of a tree takes 50 to 100 years in northern regions. Deadwood therefore remains a part of the forest ecosystem for a long time, thus enabling the survival of species depending on deadwood as a substrate.

2. Deadwood is nutrition for fungi and invertebrates

Fungi are the main decomposers of deadwood, but bacteria and invertebrates also take part in the decaying processes. These organisms have special digestive compounds, enzymes, to cut the wooden structure into more easily digestible forms. This works in the same way as the enzymes in our own stomachs that cut the food we eat into more usable shape. Fungi can be divided into three main decomposer groups: white, brown and soft rot. White-rot fungi, e.g. Phellinus nigrolimitatus, lives mainly on deciduous wood, whereas brown-rot fungi, such as Coniophora olivacea, are mostly in charge of decomposing conifers. Beetles (Coleoptera), ants (Formicidae) and termites (Isoptera) are examples of invertebrates that use deadwood as a form of nutrition, but e.g. pin lichens (Calicioid) can also more or less decompose wood.

Pin lichens (Calicioids) grow on deadwood surface. © Mia Vehkaoja

Pin lichens (Calicioids) grow on deadwood surface. © Mia Vehkaoja

3. Deadwood is home for animal offspring
Deadwood is home for thousands of species. For some species deadwood can be an incubation place and a safe nest for newborn offspring. Several beetles and termites lay their eggs inside deadwood, where the hatching larvae are safe in their own chambers. As for Nematocera, Brachycera and Aculeata, the deadwood-decomposing fungi functions as a rearing place for larvae. In addition to invertebrates, birds, bats and flying squirrels (Pteromys volans) also use the holes in deadwood as nesting places. Furthermore woodpeckers (Picidae) as cavity nesters are a good indicator for deadwood abundance.

Several beetle species lay their eggs inside deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Several beetle species lay their eggs inside deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

4. The disappearance of deadwood creates local extinctions at the very least
Nowadays deadwood is a dying natural resource. Forestry has decreased the amount of deadwood in Finnish forests by over 90%, concurrently causing the local extinctions of several species. Species that depend on deadwood throughout their entire lives are at greatest risk. Such species include the fungi Phellinus igniarius and the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus).

City wetlands, do they create a mosquito problem?

Stormwater treatment wetlands are becoming more and more common elements in urban areas. But does this mean we will soon have thousands of annoying mosquitos as our neighbors? Not necessarily.

Mosquito larvae occupy seasonal forest ponds, where predation pressure is weak. © Sari Holopainen

Mosquito larvae occupy seasonal forest ponds, where predation pressure is weak. © Sari Holopainen

Mosquitos can be a real nuisance around their emerging environment. While more stormwaters are treated by city wetlands, there is serious concern about a growing mosquito problem. They are not only a nuisance, but can also spread diseases.

Several studies have been conducted to control mosquitos in urban wetland areas. Certain methods are apparently capable of limiting mosquito breeding in stormwater facilities, but overall results remain controversial.

What do mosquitos need to occur? Firstly, mosquito larvae need standing water to evolve. Secondly, because larvae are especially desirable prey for fish, mosquitos succeed better in shallow waters without fish. Stormwater management planning should therefore avoid small seasonal standing water patches. Deep ponds without vegetation support fish populations, and are therefore recommended for stormwater wetlands. If shallow ponds are utilized, they should have flowing water and combined to deeper patches.

A dragonfly on its territory in a stromwater wetland. © Sari Holopainen

A dragonfly on its territory in a stromwater wetland. © Sari Holopainen

The effect of vegetation is complex. As already said, fish predate in areas without vegetation. Mosquitos also reproduce well in dense monocultures such as cattail stands. However, another research studying the effect of vegetation in water tanks found that vegetated water tanks had higher invertebrate species diversity. Non-vegetated tanks had low diversity, but maintained high numbers of mosquito larvae.

It seems that successful mosquito control in wetlands relies on species diversity. A diverse food web will produce competition and predation. Thus the creation of breeding habitats for amphibians, fish, and dragonflies controls mosquito production. In laboratory tests water bugs and odonate larvae consumed more mosquito larvae than other tested prey items. Planting herbaceous plant species will tempt dragonflies to the spot. Amphibians breed in shallow waters with vegetation to attach their spawn to. They may be highly successful in areas that are too shallow and vegetated for fish. Amphibians are actually more successful in fishless ponds, with less fish predation and competition. Mosquitos are food for several other species too, and for example measures supporting bird and bat communities around wetlands may help reduce mosquito levels.

Bird families consumes huge numbers of mosquitos during their breeding seasons. A tit couple eats over ten kilograms of mosquitos yearly. This robin nested near an invertebrate rich beaver pond. © Sari Holopainen

Bird families consumes huge numbers of mosquitos during their breeding seasons. A tit couple eats over ten kilograms of mosquitos yearly. This robin nested near an invertebrate rich beaver pond. © Sari Holopainen

Several studies have concluded that well-designed constructed wetlands in urban areas do not create mosquito problems. Wetlands should not be opposed due to mosquitos, but citizens should demand that wetlands are planned to incorporate healthy ecosystems.

Read more:

Mosquito control for stormwater faciilities

Water Resources Management and Water Quality Protection

A 21st century researcher in Slush

I’m waiting for my turn backstage. It will begin in 30 seconds. The assistant counts down 4, 3, 2, 1 Now. I step on stage. I know that I’ll have exactly three minutes to present my research to the hundreds of people attending Slush. Lights dazzle my eyes, and I begin my pitch on conserving the world’s wetlands. After three minutes my microphone will be switched off. Someone might wonder why a biologist is attending Slush: an event for start-ups, investors and policymakers.

At the first Slush Science Pitching Competition in 2015.

At the first Slush Science Pitching Competition in 2015.

We all probably have a stereotypical image of a researcher/scientist in our heads. For most of us a researcher may be a senior male in a dusty room filled with books, papers and research materials. This image is not so far from the truth, because only 10% of the 300 most famous scientist of all time are women, and most of them have been influential only during recent decades.
But we are living in the 21st century. It is time to shake the dust away from these old assumptions and build an image of the 21st century scientist/researcher. Scientist nowadays face new challenges in their work. Our societies are changing and becoming more effective, and research must concurrently follow the same path.

Universities and financing have transformed in recent years in Finland, which has created not only challenges and reforms, but hopefully new opportunities as well. The Finnish government has cut down on the funding allocated for universities, so researchers are forced to find new ways of funding our principle purpose: research. Without research we don’t develop new innovation, and in addition, we can’t fulfill a basic human need: the thirst for knowledge.

This thirst for knowledge is probably stronger in researchers than humans in general, and possibly the reason why we have chosen our profession. We researchers must still remember that many of us get our salary from public funding. Our jobs allow us to do what we love, not only for ourselves but also for the common good, and because of this it is our duty to communicate and report the results we get, instead of leaving them to just gather dust on our desks. Our principle purpose is to create new information, from which new innovation and development come into the world. But increasing information aka research is just a part of our job. We also need to assure that this new information is reachable by everyone. Last spring I heard a disturbing idea: “What if we already have solutions for every single problem in the world, but they are just in the form of dusty reports on researchers’ desks.”

As 21st century researchers we have to fight against this thought, and if anything strive to communicate our result in channels as versatile as possible. This is why I as a biologist took part in the first ever Slush Science Pitching Competition. I saw the event as a possibility of increasing the awareness of companies, investors and policymakers of our existence. Researchers shouldn’t be intimidated of presenting in different and versatile occasions, but should rather see them as opportunities to touch, anneal our amazing work, and deliver information to everyone.

Protecting one of the largest economies in the world

Wetland  ecology group_University of Helsinki_shallow waters of the Baltic Sea

Shallow waters of the Baltic Sea © Stella Thompson

Implementing the Red List of Ecosystems (RLE) has kicked off to a good start. I introduced this fairly new conservation method in a previous blogpost ( So far trial studies have been conducted in cooperation with IUCN on all continents apart from Africa and Antarctica. Several countries (e.g. El Salvador, Costa Rica, Marocco, Senegal) have additionally completed or nearly completed drafts for the RLE assessment of their ecosystems. Norway, Finland, and Australia are furthest in the task of implementing RLE categories and criteria into their national nature conservation standards and biodiversity legislation. A quick look at the different ecosystems encompassed so far reveals that various mires, wetlands, shore environments, coral reefs, and temperate and boreal forests are fairly well represented.

The Southern Hemisphere in particular has stepped up in the concrete utilization of RLE in assessing the health and collapse risk of ecosystems. Through a series of 13 studies, Australian researchers have determined that RLE is a functional tool for classifying and assessing various ecosystems. This has concurrently revealed several practical measures for promoting ecosystem conservation. Within the next couple of years the assessments will be extended to include all ecosystems in Australia. Factors most strongly weakening the health of Australian ecosystems have been gathered together. It is hardly surprising that climate change plays a large part, impairing ecosystems from rainforests to oceans and deserts to dry meadows. However, each ecosystem faces unique challenges at its own pace. This supports the all-round utilization of RLE. We cannot kid ourselves that conserving a few currently unwell ecosystems would be sufficient, but we must also take into consideration the probable changes that will occur in presently healthy or nearly healthy ecosystems in the near future. The future viewpoint should unquestionably be included in national RLE assessments.

A concurrent armament race seems to be ongoing concerning marine conservation; during 2015 at least four countries announced plans of founding the largest marine conservation areas in the world. The Kermadec nature reserve in the Pacific waters of New Zealand will span 240 000 mi2 (620 000 km2), while Great Britain is planning three protection zones in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with a combined area of 695 000 mi2 (1 8000 000 km2). Palau ratified the establishment of a 193 000 mi2 (500 00 km2) nature reserve, and Chile declared intentions of founding a marine sanctuary in the waters of Easter Island, covering 243 200 mi2 (630 000 km2). Complete RLE assessments should be conducted on each of these soon-to-be-founded zones, to find the areas that would most benefit from improvement. Assessments have indeed been planned for some of the reserves.

Marine conservation is geared towards securing important growth, spawning, reproductive, and feeding areas. Protecting specific ecosystems, e.g. underwater volcano chains, and securing fishing possibilities are also paramount. A recent WWF report (downloadable at calculates the combined economic value of oceans at $24 trillion. The products and services attainable from oceans is valued at $2.5 trillion. If they were an independent nation, the world’s oceans would be the seventh largest economy on the globe, ranking between Great Britain and Brazil. However, the WWF report concludes that the biodiversity of oceans has decreased by nearly 40% during 1970–2010 due to climate change, seawater acidification, and overfishing. Currently two thirds of our fishing waters have been completely utilized. Most of the remaining areas are over- rather than underexploited. The economic value of oceans is presently dwindling rapidly as marine ecosystems weaken and collapse.

Wetland  ecology group_University of Helsinki_fishing boats on the Atlantic

Fishing boats on the Atlantic Ocean © Stella Thompson

The oceans and seas have long been the Wild West of our planet, where utilization and downright exploitation are permitted with little or no rules (the so-called “tragedy of the commons”). Legislation lags behind the current situation, but founding enormous nature reserves is an excellent way to uphold ocean ecosystem health, at least from the viewpoint of reducing raw material overexploitation. But even huge conservation zones are not sufficient to control the negative effects of climate change.

Marine sanctuaries are an indication of how much we can do to uphold and maintain ecosystem health, especially when national authority and decision-making is combined with international cooperation. Unfortunately the similar protection of land ecosystems is proving more difficult because of intense land use and strict land ownership. The above-mentioned four marine sanctuaries will have a total surface area of approximately 75% of the surface area of the European Union. Conserving such a massive land area would be demanding. International cooperation is the only way forward when dealing with these challenges.


More on the planned marine sanctuaries:

Happy World Wetland Day 2016!

We are celebrating the 45th year of wetland conservation. On February 2, 1971 the Ramsar Convention was signed to uphold wetland biodiversity and functions. More than a billion people make a living from wetlands, so conserving them is essential not only for wildlife but also to us all.

Green sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) flourish in wetlands. © Sari Holopainen

Green sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) flourish in wetlands. © Sari Holopainen