A fluted orb spider (Hildebrandtia ornatissima) in B.R. Hills, Karnataka. Photo: D momaya/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.
With over 49,000 species recognised across the world, spiders are among the most abundant creatures on Earth – and for people at large, a popular icon of revulsion and fear. However, there is consensus among a limited number of arachnologists in India that even many scientists have maintained a distance from spiders.
“India’s biodiversity focus has been on tigers, elephants, rhinos but not spiders,” said V.P. Uniyal, a professor at the Wildlife Institute of India, Uttarakhand, and an entomologist who has studied high-altitude spiders in the Himalaya. “Spiders are extremely important indicators in any ecosystem. But the sheer majority of spiders in India have not even been documented yet.”
Dhruv Prajapati, a PhD candidate studying the spiders of Gujarat with Bharathiar University in Coimbatore, said that he described two new spider species in a hostel backyard in Kerala and a park in Gujarat.
“The majority of spiders have just not been identified,” he said. “There are no arachnology courses offered at the undergraduate or master’s level. The training given for taxonomy in zoological courses is very weak, and that is still the main work to be done in Indian arachnology.”
While zoologists or entomologists may choose to do a PhD or further research in arachnology, they are not taught about the subject at the university level, even as a single semester paper.
All the arachnologists The Wire Science interviewed confirmed that there is a paucity of arachnology centres in India, and cited a lack of awareness and scientific interest as reasons for this problem. The result: arachnology in India is at the mercy of individual action and discretion.
The work of P.A. Sebastian
Arachnologists argue that many need to begin acknowledging the study of spiders – especially the work and contributions of P.A. Sebastian, a little-known scientist who, after surviving a heart attack, passed away in January 2021 after a bout of dengue fever.
“P.A. Sebastian is like a father for arachnology in India,” Jimmy Paul, the last student Sebastian supervised, said. “His work is immense. Over his 30-year career, he identified nearly 60 new spiders in India.”
Sebastian also established India’s oldest arachnology lab at Sacred Heart College, Kochi, in 1998, and supervised nine PhD candidates. Sunil Joseph, an arachnologist at Deva Matha College, Kottayam, was one of his students – as was Sudhi Kumar at Christ College, Bengaluru. Both have gone on to establish arachnology labs at their institutions.
“His work pioneered arachnology in Kerala, and we have all been studying in his light,” Joseph said. “His supervision and guidance led to the identification of more than 500 spiders now.”
At Christ College, Kumar, also an assistant professor, established an arachnology lab for the Centre for Animal Taxonomy and Ecology. “We focus on spiders and millipedes,” he said. “I studied under P.A. Sebastian. He is the reason the diversity of spiders is being explored in Kerala today.”
Sebastian is survived by his wife and three children. His eldest daughter, Roshni Mary Sebastian, is a postdoctoral fellow studying sustainable waste management at the University of Alberta, Canada. She spoke to The Wire Science over the phone.
“I haven’t seen anyone else dedicate themselves to their work like he did,” she said. She attributed her father’s relentless pursuit of arachnology, while still embedded in a culture averse to spiders, to a love of science and research more broadly.
“When he started, there was a lot to be done,” she continued. “There still is. He loved identifying new spiders, naming and classifying them. Making such foundational contributions to research can only be rewarding.”
According to Roshni, Sebastian began his work with a PhD in 1983 and turned a small lab at home to what is now the facility at Sacred Heart College. In his career, he published more than 60 papers on arachnology and also edited a book, Spiders of India (2012).
At Sacred Heart College
The arachnology division at Sacred Heart College, Kochi, established in 1998 is the oldest and most developed centre for studying spiders in India. “Our students have started two other small centres in Kerala as well,” said Mathew Joseph 1, the head of the zoology department and who succeeded Sebastian at helm of the division.
In the last two decades here, Sebastian mapped the taxonomy of spiders in the Western Ghats and also helped increase the number of scientists working in the field.
Sunil Joseph was the first arachnology PhD candidate at Sacred Heart College, in 2005. “The lab at Sacred Heart has grown, it used to be smaller back then,” he said. “There are now some 25-30 students studying arachnology in Kerala. Five of them are at Deva Matha.”
Since spiders continue to languish in the darker corners of the popular imagination, Mathew Joseph said more needs to be done to raise awareness about arachnology, even among scientists. “Though there is an MSc entomology in India, there are [no papers] for arachnology in undergraduate or postgraduate zoological courses. That gap at least must be bridged.”
Spiders are abundant and are also important indicators of health in many ecosystems, he continued, so they could provide valuable information that the existing crop of ecologists could be missing.
“We have been laying the taxonomical groundwork for the last 20 years,” Sunil Joseph said. “We are now getting interested in molecular and ecological studies. Mathew Joseph also said that agricultural arachnology, a more applied science, has also been becoming a sought-after subject.
However, the large population of spiders versus the small number of people studying them also means that the amount of value is increasing only slowly.
“If most spiders in India are yet to be discovered, we will be unable to properly estimate applications of arachnology, say for agriculture, across the country,” Jimmy Paul said.
In the past, the singular efforts of individual scientists such as arachnologist B.K. Tikader’s work, with the Zoological Survey of India, led to greater attention towards and advancements in arachnology. But while spiders in Kerala – especially in the Western Ghats – are now getting attention because of scientists like P.A. Sebastian, they remain chronically understudied in the rest of the country.
Note: This article was corrected at 10:48 am on March 9, 2021, to note that Sebastian had passed away in January 2021, not December 2020 as was originally said.
Sidharth Singh is part of the faculty of critical thinking at Ashoka University and an independent journalist.
No relation to Sunil Joseph↩