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They call her ‘Spider Girl’

By MELISSA DASSRATH Sunday, May 18 2008

click on pic to zoom in
Just a few of the samples from her spider specimen collection....
Just a few of the samples from her spider specimen collection....

Spiders may make most people shudder with fear, but for Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal a day spent in the company of these insects is a day in bug heaven.

Sewlal, who has devoted herself to the study of spiders (arachnology), is known around the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus as “Spider Girl”. For her commitment to her spiders Sewlal has been a three-time recipient of the prestigious Vincent Roth Award, a world record in her field.

For three consecutive years, the American Arachnology Society awarded her monetary grants to conduct research for her academic papers: Survey of Spiders in St Kitts (2006), Survey of Spiders in Antigua (2007) and Survey of Spiders in Montserrat (2008).

The 28-year-old arachnologist has also collected spider specimens from Nevis, Anguilla, Grenada, St Maarten and St Vincent. Her goal is to document the spider species of the entire Eastern Caribbean and include it in the scientific body of knowledge.

Sewlal joked: “I suppose I like spiders because I am an only child and spiders are solitary creatures. Besides, the females are very impressive. They are larger and not to be messed with.”

According to her, the most important thing with this kind of research is being comfortable handling the insect: “I am very comfortable handling spiders. Throughout my studies I have had to handle other insects like wasps, for example, and I’m not at all uncomfortable with that.”

At a young age, insects captivated her interest. “My first recollection, is of my grandfather taking me for my afternoon walk. I would watch the tadpoles in the canals and stare at the butterflies for the longest time. He had a lot of patience.”

Her affinity for nature evolved into a love for the subject of biology. She was home-schooled as a child and then moved around to different private secondary schools. It was while she was an A- Level student that she visited St Mary’s College for a lab project and stumbled across a zoology lab complete with a display of insect specimens and decided she wanted to focus on that field of study.

In 1999 she started her Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology at UWI. Later that year, she attended a conference hosted by the American Arachnology Society with Dr Christopher Starr as the feature speaker. Sewlal didn’t know it then, but Starr would become her mentor.

“I was a first year student, so I was not taking him on. Dr Starr was very excited about spiders. He gave out posters that said spiders are cool and posters of spiders on LSD and the webs they made. I still have them.”

In 2005 Sewlal graduated with her M Phil in Entomology from UWI. Her thesis entitled Autecology of Web-Building Spiders looked at how these spiders interacted with each other, their environment and other organisms in their habitat.

Sewlal is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Arachnology at UWI and working to complete her dissertation “Biodiversity survey of the spider families, Araneida, Nephilidae and Tetragnathidae in Trinidad, West Indies”.

She said that there are over 46 spider families and close to 1,000 species of spiders in Trinidad and this country shares a lot of the same species as other Caribbean islands.

She described her research on orb-weaving spiders: “Although all spiders produce silk, not all of the species fashion their silk to directly trap prey.

Jumping Spiders will weave them on leaves and crawl underneath for shelter, whereas the Ogre-faced spider makes a web, holds onto it, throws it off and pounces on the prey. But I’m focusing on three families of orb-weaving spiders that create webs in trails and wait for prey to get trapped in it.”

Sewlal says that she has trekked in some of the most rugged terrain including the top peaks of El Tucuche and El Cierro del Aripo, the Heights of Aripo, swamps of Rousillac and the forests of Mora. “I look at different kinds of habitats that range from modified land like abandoned cocoa estates to pristine land,” she stated.

It’s a difficult task to gather her specimens. Sewlal explained that she is now accustomed to drudging through steep, murky waters and clearing thick vegetation to reach the spider sites. She said: “It’s real bush. You have to cut your way through and sample the undisturbed sites. I usually find them between the roots of trees, in the hollows of a tree stump and in patches of grass.”

She often employs the help of experienced hunters or “bush men” as guides. Outfitted with hiking gear, rain gear, a cutlass, a cellphone, vials and some food, Sewlal seeks out the spiders.

When asked if she is afraid of the dangers of these kinds of expeditions, she said: “Well no, I am used to it by now. I just prepare myself with the necessary equipment and start out early in the morning to ensure there is enough daylight.”

Catching the spiders can be tricky and she has been bitten a few times: “I have been bitten about four times. Once I got a tarantula bite and my whole hand went numb for a day.”

So far she has found about three “unusual species” of spiders that will have to be analysed by an expert to determine if they have discovered a new species.“First, we have to find an expert that specialises in that particular genus. Then they have to examine, identify its unique characteristics, name it and record it,” said Sewlal.

Sewlal indicated that she hopes to continue exploring the spider species of the Caribbean and even track the origins of certain species, but explained that she relies on grants to fund her research. “The Caribbean has a lot to offer in terms of species diversity. Once I am blessed with the resources to document them I want to continue my research. I can only make trips when I get the funding. There are a lot of expenses. Like I have to pay guides and purchase equipment.”

She also spoke about the relationship between spiders and human beings and encouraged co- existence and symbiosis. “A lot of people, do not appreciate the role of spiders. They can be used as biological control agents. They eat pests but not plants. But farmers use multi-spectrum insecticides which kill everything instead of targeting the pests that spiders do not eat. They can also be used as biological control indicators to determine whether land has been disturbed or it’s undisturbed.”

However, spiders are not all Sewlal is passionate about. The petite, poised young woman started dancing at age four and actually danced professionally until she started university. “I had a Turkish dance teacher who taught me tap, jazz, ballet and modern. I was the principal dancer. I performed at Queen’s Hall, The Little Carib Theatre and many other places over the years. I pursued dance very intensely. It was a form of release for me.” Her talents are rather eclectic and include painting, calligraphy, piano, cuatro, guitar, steel pan and melidoca. She appeared on the Rikki Tikki Show in 1988. That’s not all, as she casually stated that she also dabbled in construction: “I did some courses in plumbing, tiling, furniture making and upholstering. I built my entire couch set and a chaise lounge.”

When asked how she found the time away from her demanding study schedule, the ambitious woman said: “I liked it, so I made the time. And there are many other things I would like to learn about.”

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