World wild web: A cluster of new species of spiders in India
This glamourous lady knows her silk. If a suitor is hoping to get lucky, he will be well-advised to approach the leggy lass with a silk-wrapped morsel for a gift. Also notorious for her cannibalistic tendencies, on a hungry whim, she might make a meal of her partner – sometimes right in the middle of the act.
Commonly known as the Golden Silk Orb Weaver spider, the female of the species is intimidatingly beautiful, resplendent with colours and proudly dominating a large, wildly impressive gold-tinged web. Meanwhile, the male is a small, timid and common looking red specimen – lingering in the sidelines. This and many more similar entertaining stories by Chennai-based Anubhav Agarwal effectively ensnare me into the world of arachnids.
Conducting insect walks for enthusiasts in the city at The Farm on OMR since October, the 38-year-old loves exploring the bio diversity. “There is a spider within two to five feet of wherever you might be,” he says, even as my eyes dart around his living room worriedly. Then Anubhav proceeds to share that there is a female Theridion in one of the corners of his home, nursing her babies. He goes on to admit that sharing details about the brood might well lead to the entire spider family being thrown out, as his own wife is yet to cosy up to his hobby.
“I fail to understand why we get rid of spiders and call it pest control,” says Anubhav, with a sense of alarm. “Spiders are the best natural pest control there are! They are beneficial to humankind and ecology,” he insists. In fact, a BBC article quotes a recent study by biologists, which — after over four decades of data gathering — found that the global population of spiders consumes 400 million to 800 million tonnes of insects every year.
Friendly neighbourhood spider meet
At the first ever SpiderIndia Meet held at Kolkata in February earlier this year, Anubhav was one of several participants embarking on trips to the Zoological Survey of India to see and identify preserved specimens from the British era, while also taking in rare sightings such as of the eight-eyed Siler semiglaucus. (The trips were coordinated by Kolkata-based Arjan Basu Roy of Nature Mates.) Piqued by these stories, we dug a little deeper, only to find that this is just the tip of a growing movement.
Started by Vijay Barve from Pune a decade back, SpiderIndia is a part of the umbrella platform DiversityIndia, which has more than 3,700 members on their Facebook page. Vijay’s parents were birders and used to run nature clubs in Pune; no wonder that the cause of conservation is close to his heart.
Though his primary interest is butterflies, Vijay has collaborated with others to create forums for amphibians, reptiles and Indian moths too. “I’m an IT guy. Technically, I wanted to facilitate these platforms to enable networking and collaborative research,” says the 50-year-old, who’s working on his post-doctorate research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, which boasts the world’s largest collection of butterflies and moths.
Vijay tells us that their Yahoo group is a better platform as they are able to save the posts in archives, whereas the timeline on Facebook is temporary and posts tend to get buried. Two years back he completed his PhD, where the topic was, ‘If data generated by citizen scientists can be used for serious research’ – though he concluded with a ‘yes, it is relevant’ – it pertained only to a study of butterflies. “I am not interested in publishing new discoveries. For me, it is about creating a common pool of information that can lead to specific research,” he asserts.
From ‘Ugh’ to ‘Wow!’
Talking about birds and butterflies brings up Chennai-based Venkat Raaman’s pet peeve: “Write about a new species of a bird and promptly you will have the entire naturalist’s community in a tizzy – while a new spider species barely cause a ripple!”
Currently commissioned to write a book on insects, this 52-year-old started off with sound engineering in his school days, moved on to reprography before becoming an expert nature photographer, when ‘Spider’ Viji (Dr Vijayalakshmi) took him on board to replicate 200 colour slides of spiders – and subsequently sent him into the field to take actual pictures. “My aim is to change people’s reaction from ‘Ugh’ to ‘Wow’ when it comes to spiders and insects – that will be my contribution towards conservation,” says the member of the Madras Naturalist Society (MNS).
As for enthusiasts who call themselves Citizen Scientists, he suggests, “To make a difference, one cannot just be clicking pictures. You also need to be an illustrator, photographer and a naturalist. Only then your finds can be recorded seriously.”
“Poochi” Venkat, as he is fondly called, is available for guided walks to the Adyar Poonga in Chennai, where he promises the habitat is teeming with surprises. (Price according to the number of participants. Call and confirm his availability at 9962523204).
When it comes to recording pictures, Atul Vartak is the go-to guy in the relevant online communities for spider pictures. (Check out his gallery on Flickr.) Taking macro-photo art to another level, Atul, who is a dentist otherwise, is also a fan of the jumping spider. Stationed in Boisar, Maharashtra, he confesses that though his 10-year-old daughter is tolerating his hobby, his dentist wife is still at the scream-and-run stage. About a decade back, he started birding and quickly turned to spiders when he discovered that the habitat is easier to access and new finds are never-ending.
Having used his pictures to reach out to researchers and scientists, Atul offers, “India is a huge country and we are a very big bio-diversity. We need citizen scientists to bring attention to habitats and specimen.” His favourite spider is the brightly coloured Chrysilla Lauta – she sports iridescent blue and sometimes pinks and reds.
His word of advice to newbies – “Don’t be in a hurry. Take your time to study a subject and take notes before taking a picture. Observe, talk to experts and understand the key points of species and genus.” A species in his wishlist? “The Portia jumping spider, which is super intelligent and a cannibal,” he says. “With very keen eyesight, this one doesn’t build her own web and strategises her hunt — I am yet to meet her.”
Masters of species
But for 25-year-old Siddarth Kulkarni, this is not about photography. His first find – a red back spider (family heridiidae) – still keeps him up at nights, as he is yet to confirm its taxonomy. Though an Australian scientist suggested that it was an Aussie variety, Siddarth is persisting with his research, in the hope of proving that he has in fact discovered a new Indian species.
When Vijay Anand, a pediatric surgeon, posted a unique species in Assam, Siddarth promptly went all the way to study it and eventually write about it – today, his passion has taken him across the globe. Now at the George Washington University completing his doctoral studies, Siddarth’s research on spiders has led him on travels from Thailand to the Netherlands.
His favourite spider habitat? “Cloud forests. I was fortunate to visit cloud forests in Sri Lanka, and will do so again soon, in Costa Rica. They may be like terrestrial islands accommodating unique species. These lineages might be vital to provide a signal to the evolution of spiders and the movement of tectonic plates.” Siddarth is now the India country coordinator for the World Spider Catalog, Bern, Switzerland (wsc.nmbe.ch) and a member of the Spider & Scorpion Specialist Group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
That which must be named
Youngster Dhruv Prajapati has successfully put India on the global arachnid map. The 24-year-old Gujarat boy’s life changed when he took up studying spiders as a four-month project for his Master’s course in Zoology at the Gujarat University, Ahmedabad. Exploring the limited campus, he came away with 77 species of spiders, including one that had never been reported in Gujarat before.
Dhruv eventually came out with a paper declaring six new species from across Kerala, Karnataka and one from Gujarat too. “I have described six new species, out of which two belong to the ant-eating spider genus Tropizodium, which is very rare and reported from India for the first time,” he says.
He went on to bag the Young Naturalist Award last December. Now full-time into Arachnology, Dhruv has moved to Kerala and works at the Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi. “I am truly fascinated by the Jumping spider. It is difficult to classify, and the diversity of the species is remarkable. If you find 100 specimen – 75 will be unique!” says Dhruv.
Sure enough, we find that according to Wikipedia, the Jumping spider has 5,800 recorded species and 600 genera – while the researchers are far from done. Also, Dhruv does have a few more papers waiting to be published, but refuses to divulge details.
Meanwhile, John Caleb, 29, a Research Associate in Kolkata with the Zoological Survey of India, recalls his earliest spider encounters on the Madras Christian College campus. His find, he claims, is a new nocturnal net casting spider, which he calls Deinopis Scrubjunglei. Spiders can be found everywhere, he reassures – “even your backyard can provide a rich ground!”
Why is identifying a spider such a big deal?
■ Arachnids, despite being of the same species, have different physical characteristics. The only way to confirm identification would be – pull out their genitalia and put it under the microscope! Scientists have backed this method.
■Taxonomy is constantly evolving. For instance, Anubhav tells us how the commonly found cheiracanthium sp of the family Miturgidae now belongs to the family Eutichuridae. You need to be clued into natural history to get it right.
■ Wrong identification can lead to documentation that is called Predatory Journals – they gobble up true research and adulterate the information pool.
Spiders are not insects!
■ (Nor is a scorpion.) It is an arachnid.
■ Spiders don’t fly.
■ Spiders have eight legs while insects have six.
■ Arachnids have no feelers.
■Spiders have only two sections in their body, while insects have three. Check out an ant for confirmation!
New and curious
■ Last December saw scientists in India naming a distinctive new species
of spider after JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books and movies. It mimics dry leaf and looks like the sorting hat – hence, Eriovixia gryffindori.
■ This one will not help those with arachnophobia – a couple of weeks back, they found a massive one with red fangs in a cave in Mexico. Same family as the scary and venomous Brazilian wandering spider; when they say it is 10 cms, just remember the legs are not included in the measurement!
■ Out of the six species reported by Dhruv Prajapati – Tropizodium kalami was named after former Indian president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
Find your team
■ Better suited to scientists, researchers and serious naturalists – next up is the fourth conference by Asian Society of Arachnology in China, Baoding. The last one had been at Amravati, India. Details: researchgate.net
■ Want to join a party of amateurs and experts? The Facebook group SpiderIndia has more than 7,000 members and has about 20 posts daily, documenting spiders from across the country.