Professor of ecology Johanna Mappes: It is exciting to bring an evolutionary approach to practice

Johanna Mappes studies how the predator community and predator behaviour shape prey traits, communication, and evolution.

Johanna Mappes took up her position as the professor of ecology at the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences in September 2020. Her research field is evolutionary ecology, which is a scientific discipline that focuses on understanding the patterns of evolutionary change and how organisms adapt to their environment, and discovering the mechanisms influencing the evolution of species.

“I have always been curious about how things work in nature, and I really enjoy problem-solving and experimental design. All this requires integrating a creative approach with scientific practice: imagination and logical thinking,” Johanna Mappes says.

Professor Mappes studies animal interactions, particularly how the predator community and predator behaviour shape prey traits, communication and evolution. In her research, she often uses colourful animals as models because they are an excellent tool for understanding adaptation.

“Animals use colours in social interactions, during sexual communication and in communication between predators and prey; furthermore, colouration is involved in thermoregulation, immunity, and environmental shielding. Because colours interact with the environment in predictable and environment-specific ways, they provide a really excellent opportunity to predict how environmental changes affect organisms and their adaptivity.”

“Biological systems evolve. Variables change because evolution is change over time. So, in all fields of biology, history is a critical part of how we think about the complex issue of life. Without evolutionary biology, we cannot really understand “why”, but only describe “how things are”. For example, interactions between predators and prey are very important for community structure and function. Both predator and prey populations are currently undergoing drastic change, and we need to understand how these changes influence the resilience of biological systems.”  

Professor Mappes finds it exciting, and really important, to bring an evolutionary approach to the practice of conservation biology, considering evolutionary history at various levels of biological organisation. “For example, past adaptations (evolutionary history) make populations and species with different life histories more or less vulnerable to global changes. It is necessary that management strategies take into account the evolutionary potential and evolutionary processes to better protect extant biodiversity and biodiversification,” she says.

At the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Johanna Mappes joined the Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme. She finds the Thriving Nature programme a unique opportunity. “First of all, the programme has managed to attract several new, young and energetic people to Viikki. The blend of disciplines, skills and will to do excellent science and change the world is marvellous.”

Johanna Mappes started in her new role in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. She moved to Helsinki from Jyväskylä. As of mid-December, some of her group – and some of her moths – are still in Jyväskylä. A small part of her contract is also at the University of Jyväskylä. “I very much hope to be able to continue the collaboration between Helsinki and Jyväskylä.”


Research group Predator-Prey Interactions

Most important stages in Johanna Mappes’s science career
  • PhD from Stockholm, working at Christer Wiklund’s lab: “I learnt so much there, not only about insects and Lepidoptera but also about science in general. It was also very important for me to have several female role models in science, which was lacking in Jyväskylä in the mid-1990s.”
  • Working with late Professor Rauno Alatalo in Jyväskylä: “This was probably the most important stage. He was a very important mentor for me and a powerful figure who built up the behavioural and evolutionary ecology disciplines in Jyväskylä. He encouraged me to develop my own ideas and to start investigating predator–prey interactions, and made the construction of a bird lab at Konnevesi research station possible. His example of what a supervisor should be like is still strongly present.”
  • Visit to UC Santa Barbara in the early 2000s and starting to work with Professor John Endler: “He is one of the most influential living evolutionary biologists and we have published some important papers together. And of course, gaining significant funding from the Academy of Finland on multiple occasions, such as the Academy professorships and the CoE Programme, allowed me to fully concentrate on research and also promote the careers of young people, which is really important to me.”