The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2011 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences to Ilkka Hanski from the University of Helsinki, Finland, “for his pioneering studies on how spatial variation affects the dynamics of animal
and plant populations”.
This year’s Crafoord Prize Laureate has established himself as one of the world’s most eminent ecologists in a career spanning more than thirty years. He has received the prize for developing a range of new analytical methods and mathematical models in ecology. These are now widely used to help scientists investigate how animal and plant species
are affected when their habitats are split by factors such as urbanization, deforestation and climate change.
Ilkka Hanski has studied a wide range of animals from butterflies and dung beetles to water fleas and voles, lemmings and bears. He has also made metapopulation ecology a substantial research area. It focuses on species that inhabit fragmented habitats, in order to assess the risk of local extinction and discern what may help the species to survive in a
landscape subject to growing human influence.
Hanski’s metapopulation theories are now among the cornerstones of research on biodiversity, and also have a major
bearing on practical management of the natural environment and on conservation policy.
Despite Hanski’s numerous expeditions to such exotic places as Borneo, Madagascar and Greenland, most of his acclaimed studies have been carried out virtually on his own home ground, the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea. There, his research team has spent more than 20 years conducting extensive surveys of the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), which has been declining in Northern Europe over the past few decades because of the change in landscape caused by modern farming.
Today, the species is no longer found on the Finnish mainland, but survives in split metapopulations in the dry meadows of the Åland islands, where Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata) and Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are the key host plants for the butterfly larvae.
One of the best-known phenomena in Hanski’s research is extinction debt. This means that species may persist for
a while in fragmented, isolated populations despite being doomed to become extinct in time, owing to the great
changes in their habitats that have already taken place.
The butterflies Hanski himself has long studied have, for example, suffered from inbreeding and deteriorating flying ability when their subpopulations have become too isolated. This has impaired the long-term survival potential
of the species and its capacity to cope with environmental changes. Similar patterns have been observed for many other species when human land use has resulted in progressive disintegration of the landscape and splitting of habitats.
Ilkka Hanski was born in 1953 in Lempäälä, Finland. He has a PhD in Zoology from Oxford University (1979). His positions have included Acting Professor of Zoology (Animal Ecology) and Professor of Zoology (Animal Ecology) at the University of Helsinki (in 1988–91 and since 1993 respectively), and Research Professor at the Academy of Finland (National Research Council) since 1996.
The Prize award ceremony will be held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday 10 May 2011, in the presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Sweden. The prize will include a cash award of SEK 4 million.
A Prize Symposium in Biosciences will also be held on Monday 9th May and a Prize lecture will take place at Lund University on Wednesday 11th May.