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Biodiversity with Dr Deepa Senapathi

Dr Deepa Senapathi explains why ensuring the continued survival of all species will keep ecosystems functioning.
If you’ve watched the latest David Attenborough documentary, you’ll have heard about the impact of climate change on our ecosystems and biodiversity. We’re here in the beautiful Harris Gardens on campus to meet with Dr. Deepa Senapathi, a senior research fellow, to discuss the impacts of climate change and land use change on biodiversity. We’ll learn about her research on endangered birds and pollinators and ask the big ethical question, should we be saving organisms that don’t directly impact us as human beings? So what interests you in your topic of research, and why did you get into this topic of climate change? I guess I’ve always been interested in the natural world ever since I was a little girl.
As I grew up, I could see that the activities that we do as humans were changing our environments but also causing a lot of detrimental impacts to species, communities, and populations. So that was my sort of driving force in getting into conservation and ecology. And I’ve been very lucky to work with a couple of extremely critically endangered bird species in the tropics. But also in the last 10 years, I’ve worked with pollinators across the UK and Europe. And that’s slowly sort of moved my research from pure conservation biology into this interface of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, food security.
And when you work in that interface, how the environment is changing, especially how our changing climate is impacting species and ecosystems, becomes really, really important. Definitely. Be hard to imagine life without all these species. Can you explain the impacts that the changing climate might have on species and ecosystems? So climate change is having a wide range of impacts on species and ecosystems. And one of the things that’s highlighted most often is how habitats and places that species occupy become unsuitable for them. Also, increasingly, climate change has detrimental impacts on key life history events of plants and animals within an ecosystem. So one of the most iconic conservation species I’ve had the privilege of working on is the Mauritius kestral.
And this species, the entire world population, went down to just four individuals. And then there was a very successful captive breeding and reintroduction programme. And now, they estimate that the population has stabilised over 200 individuals of the species. What we’re seeing is that the rainfall patterns in Mauritius are changing, and there’s a higher frequency of rainfall. So the amounts of rainfall themselves are not changing very much but the spring rainfall, we have more days of wet weather. And what this is causing is it’s causing the birds to lay their eggs later, so the chicks hatch later.
But that also means that perhaps the chicks are not fully grown or fully fledged to leave the nest before the big monsoon season hits. And so those sort of changing climate patterns can have a detrimental impact on the survival of a species. Wow. That is definitely interesting. Also, from personal experience, I’ve seen this in action. Where I come from, we grow strawberries, back– my father would grow them back in the ’60s and ’70s. And over time, they’ve started to see production drop off, some from external factors in other locations. But some of it has been that they’ve had to ramp up pricing through the use of fertilisers and extra growing equipment because the temperatures have changed, the pollinators have changed.
And if we’re seeing that now, we can only just expect this to continue in that way. And that’s a really fantastic example of how things used to be 50 years ago, and they’ve changed dramatically now. But it’s also a really good example in sort of heightening awareness, because if we can spot the problems, we can start designing the solutions going forward into the future as well. So that’s great. Thank you. So why is conservation important? I think quite often conservation is seen as a sort of individual thing in terms of species. But conservation is more than that. It’s more than just about species. It’s about whole communities. It’s about whole ecosystems. And this is the world we live in.
This is our home. So that’s sort of saying, why is it important to protect our home? So I would hasten that people need to look at conservation as a sort of holistic solution to preserve and protect our home, the world we live in. So I adopt a polar bear through the WWF, and I get lots of information about how they’re helping climate change and how to protect these animals. And I noticed on the website, there’s a lot of the cute, fluffy animals. How do we protect the other animals from climate change?
I agree with your point that a lot of conservation, at least the sort of publicity surrounding conservation, is focused on the charismatic, iconic, big mammals or cute, fluffy animals as you see them. But there’s a whole world out there that is away from those cute, fluffy animals. Not to say that they’re not important. But, for instance, there’s actually an ugly animal preservation society whose sole focus is to move away from these charismatic animals and highlight sort of issues surrounding other animals that might not make it into mainstream media. But also, I would say just get stuck into your local backyard because there are wildlife trusts that operate at a local level.
There are conservation organisations that target particular groups, like there’s the butterfly conservation, and there’s bumblebee conservation trust. And there’s all of these organisations that focus on different species. Definitely. I like that about going into your backyard. We use to do that as kids and see how we can protect them also. Exactly. Then one of the big ethical questions is, why should we protect or save these species that don’t have a direct impact on us as humans? So there are a lot of conversations happening about focusing conservation efforts on species that have direct benefits to human beings. So, for instance, on a lovely sunny day like today, we’re standing here in this lovely green space.
And it’s very hard to then quantify the benefit that that has on our mental health and well-being, for instance. Another reason, I would say, is looking beyond the sort of human direct or indirect benefits. Species are required for healthy functioning of ecosystems. Nature needs to be in balance. So if you take out species out of a particular food chain, there could be huge detrimental knock-on impacts on other species in the whole ecosystem. So we need to move away from this sort of anthropogenic viewpoint of what’s useful to us and look at is the system able to function in an optimal manner.
And finally, as a conservation biologist, I believe that nature has intrinsic value, regardless of whether or not it benefits humans. It has a right to exist just as we as a species have a right to exist. So I would say for all of those reasons, it’s important to look beyond just the direct benefits of biodiversity.

Watch the video to hear Dr Deepa Senapathi discuss how human activities are impacting biodiversity. Find out about her research on the Mauritian kestrel and the work that shows how changing rainfall patterns may affect survival of the chicks, which could have negative impacts on the remaining population of this iconic species. Listen as Deepa explains to Nick and Emily the intrinsic value of nature and why it’s so important to conserve all species, not just those that have a direct benefit to humans.

Is there a particular species or ecosystem you’re passionate about conserving? Tell us about it in the discussion area below.

About Dr Deepa Senapathi

Dr Deepa Senapathi’s research focuses on the impacts on environmental change on biodiversity and ecosystems particularly the impacts of climate change and land-use change on avian populations and insect pollinator communities. Deepa works with policy makers, non-government organisations, delivery agencies and land managers to prioritise biodiversity and ecosystem services.

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