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Q&A: Spider Insider with Vena Kapoor

Somewhere in a certain cranny of your home, lives a little creature that’s on the lookout for mosquitoes and flies. She’s spinning up some of the strongest known natural fibres to trap these insects that often keep us up at night by singing terrible tunes right into our ears. She’s none other than your friendly arachnid roommate—the spider!

Besides just hanging around, going about their own business and keeping insects in check, spiders have some other supercool tricks up their sleeves.

And if you’re somebody who rolls up a newspaper or runs out of the room the minute you sense a spider’s presence, we hope that this interview will magically turn your fear into fascination. And maybe even help you fall madly in love with them, like we have. Okay, just kidding, I went a little overboard didn’t I?

But we have the perfect person for this job—Vena Kapoor! She works with NCF’s Education and Public Engagement programme, and has a consuming love for spiders.

What’s so special about spiders, Vena?

I don’t think they deserve their bad rep at all—they’re such fascinating creatures! There are so many reasons why they’re special—but if I had to pick just a few… Hmm…

When you think of a spider, perhaps you’re thinking of a it in a silken web?

Well, all spiders do have the ability to produce and use silk, but not all of them use this silk  to build webs in order to catch their food. The organs that emit silk, called ‘spinnerets’, are situated at their rear end. Spiders use silk for various other reasons too—to protect themselves by using it to cocoon themselves  within silken chambers, as a cover to protect and cushion their egg sacs, and as a safety line when they move from place to place.

Young spiders also use silk to make their first journey into the world. They do this by pointing their little behinds upwards, and when they catch a draft of wind they release silk from their spinnerets, this lifts them off and they balloon away!

 

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You’ve been looking at spiders for almost 20 years now—you’ve studied and documented spiders found in the rainforests of the Western Ghats in India. When and how did your fascination with spiders begin? Were you ever scared of them as a kid?

Arachnophobia or the fear of spiders and other arachnids is rather common. Many people seem to be creeped out by the spiders many legs and unpredictable movements. But perhaps all this fear stems from the fact that we don’t know enough about spiders.

As for me, I started really looking at spiders when I got my first job post my undergrad degree. I don’t think they struck me as something interesting before that. In retrospect I think that was because no one really took me on a nature walk or showed me animals or plants at a young age. Although, I don’t remember being creeped out or scared of any creatures including creepy-crawlies when I was a kid, much to the amusement of my parents.

Dr Vijaylakshmi, who I had worked for had studied a particular species of spider called the giant crab spider for her PhD thesis. This spider is active at night and specialises in catching cockroaches. The organisation she worked with was trying to experiment with using spiders as natural pest control agents in agricultural fields instead of using chemical pesticides. And so there were a lot of books, literature and pictures of spiders (in those days these were all on slides), and I had a wealth of spider information at my disposal and this really helped in the beginning.

I am not a trained biologist or a taxonomist (I did my undergrad in Commerce) and so all this spider watching and IDing in the beginning took me some time to figure out—for example how best to identify spiders in different groups, and the different clues I should look out for to find them. And so I think if something really fascinates and interests you in the wildlife, ecology world don’t hesitate to pursue this even if you think you don’t have the qualifications or background… it may be a bit of hard work in the beginning but well worth it if you persist.

That’s really lovely, and also so true. I’ve heard things about the ultra weird (and fascinating) world of spider romance. Eating mates, offering corpses as gifts—all sorts of morbid things—what are the other cool strategies spiders use to attract mates?

Haha, yes! Some of the strategies males use to woo their female can be really bizarre.

The males of most spiders are much smaller than the female—in some species the female may be 3-5 times larger than the male! As a result, you can imagine, the males have to be extra careful when approaching a female to mate. The path to mating is fraught with danger, a male spider could be made into a meal by a hungry female or has to compete with other male suitors. So what you may have heard about some female spiders eating their males is actually true.

A male jumping spider performs courtship rituals like waving his first pair of legs and swaying his body to attract his female of choice.

The males of some spiders are known to approach their females with a wrapped up dead insect and present it to her as a gift. A good strategy don’t you think? A juicy insect snack to keep female occupied long enough for the male to quickly mate with her without the risk of getting eaten himself in case she is hungry.

And then there are accounts of some males known to tie up the female spider with silk before he mates with her—if it’s a clever survival strategy to avoid getting eaten or some kinky spider romance type thing…who knows!

Let me tell you about one of my favourite spiders though—the Portia—she’s a gorgeous little ‘jumping’ spider, fabulous at camouflage, she looks like a small piece of debris! Now the Portia usually actively hunts out other spiders to feed on. And she uses a very complicated hunting technique to catch spiders.

When she approaches a spider on a web, she plucks on it—and the way she plucks on the web mimics the struggle of an insect stuck on it, or that of a visiting male spider trying to get access to the female on the web.

So the unsuspecting spider thinks a potential mate or delicious insect is on her web, and so approaches the area of the web where the disturbance is. BAM! there’s the Portia spider instead—who pounces on her, all ready to devour her. You have to marvel at the technique…

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Such tricksters!

Absolutely! But what fun right? Oh, there’s one more. The bird dropping spider, called because it looks like a bird dropping—another one of my favourites. Since it looks like bird poo, the spider is often saved from being eaten.

But here’s the more interesting thing—the droppings of birds are rich in essential nutrients and butterflies love that. And so butterflies love to visit the dropping of birds… you know where I’m going with this I think…

The butterfly flies to what looks like a lovely tasty bird dropping to get some salt and nutrients—and wham gets caught by what is literally a shitty looking spider instead—I find it hilarious!

 

Wow, masquerading as bird poop to stay safe from predators and to trick butterflies—that’s incredible! What are the spiders we’re most likely to bump into, and have been bumping into in and around our homes? Is there any way we can differentiate between the different species we commonly come across?

So, very broadly, spiders can be divided into two main groups—those that build silken webs in order to catch their prey. These are grouped as the “web building spiders”.

These web building spiders use their silk to build webs, live in and to catch their prey. They build different kinds of webs, webs shaped like wheels and half wheels, webs shaped like tents and scaffolds, and sometimes just a messy mass of silken threads.

And then there is a group that does not build webs to catch their prey, and instead uses various hunting techniques such as stealth, pouncing, or camouflage to confuse their prey and these spiders are called “hunting spiders”.

The first thing to look for is if the spider is in a web or not. If it is, you know it falls in the group of web building spiders—now, try to see what kind of web it has built.

The common web building spiders you will find in your house, are the ones you find dangling on ceilings and in the corners of walls. They build these untidy dust gathering webs that are just many strands with no particular shape. They are long bodied and have very long spindly legs and so are popularly known as “daddy-long-legs” or just simply “house spiders” by many people.

A common hunting spider you will find in your house are the spunky jumping spiders. Jumping spiders are small and often colourful, some even have these crazy almost iridescent colouring. If you see a very quick moving almost curious in habit spider, using stealth like moves and jumps, that’s a jumping spider. Being a hunting spider they also have extremely good eyesight. One pair of eyes right in the center of their head is much bigger and prominent than the other four pairs of eyes! So you can look out for that as well.

 

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Oooh some time ago, I came across this article about how these jumping spiders have such excellent eyesight that they can see most probably see the moon!

Yes, and even Andromeda, our nearest galaxy apparently!

Just outside your house if you have plants in your balcony or garden, and the space is not very disturbed, the common web building spiders you might come across are the “orb weavers” that build webs that are shaped like small wheels.

In fairly open areas or a grassy patch you might come across especially when there is a lot of morning dew in the air and so the webs are more prominent, these largish webs that look like delicate sheets spread out on the ground or on low vegetation.

One part of this web leads to a tunnel and if you look closely at the entrance of this tunnel, you’ll most likely be met by a spider, waiting patiently for an insect to get trapped on its sheet web. These are the tunnel sheet web spiders…

 

I’m definitely going to keep a lookout for them now—this was helpful! Is there really any reason to be scared of spiders?

There is no need to be really… even the large tarantulas (which are found in Indian forests) if you do happen to handle them they might give you a bit of a nip and the fine hairs on their body might give you a bit of an itch—but that’s really all about it. (although if you don’t need to handle a spider—don’t—it’s best to let them go about their own business)

We don’t really have any spiders in India that are venomous to humans like the deadly ones you hear of in Australia and South America—they have not been discovered or reported in India so far. And most spiders have fangs that are too tiny to penetrate human skin anyway, and their venom is too weak for humans.

 

Fun fact time! The oldest known spider fossil was found in eastern France, and dates back to over 300 million years ago! That’s way way before humans evolved, and even before dinosaurs came around. How cool is that! Haha sorry, I’ve been spending some time reading about the cool things spiders do.

Yup, and spiders are a group of animals that can be found in every type of habitat and continent – except Antarctica—which means they have evolved a variety of strategies to survive in these different kinds of landscapes. So far about 46,000 different types of spiders have been found across the world—and every year more and more species are being discovered. So far India has reported about 1600 species of spiders—even though only a fraction of our country has been explored for spiders so far.

 

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Thank you Vena, for letting us into this rather gripping, action-packed world of spiders. 

Spiders are indeed not deserving of their terrible reputation. And the next time I see a little eight-legged friend dangling by a thread from the ceiling, I’m going to spend some time and think of all the cool things she might be up to—perhaps she’s on the lookout for a delicious mosquito, maybe she’s waiting for a mate to come by with a gift in tow—either way, she surely means no harm to any of us.

 

All photographs taken by Sara: commissioned and copyrighted images used with permission.

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One thought on “Q&A: Spider Insider with Vena Kapoor

  1. Nice interview and pics. But what I found missing was a mention of the must read about spiders – the classic Charlotte’s web by E.B. White.

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