Mongabay-India

From fear to fascination: More research and awareness to protect India’s misunderstood spiders

  • While some myths associate spiders with omens and danger, these arachnids play a crucial role in controlling pest populations and maintaining ecosystem balance.
  • Despite their ecological importance, spiders remain understudied in India due to limited funding and lesser research focus compared to larger mammals, hindering conservation efforts.
  • Citizens across India are working to dispel myths and raise awareness about the importance of spiders.

In northern Karnataka, there is a myth that the only way to avoid death from a fatal bite of a tarantula, a hairy-legged, nocturnal spider, is by stretching the spider’s eight legs and placing a stone on it. While it is true that a tarantula’s bite can be extremely painful, the chances of getting bitten by these spiders, that usually live in burrows, are rare.

Another folklore from southern Andhra Pradesh, says that if a house harbours spider webs the size of an elephant’s head, it foretells the death of one of its members. In reality, however, spiders are known to offer vital housekeeping services, such as feeding on mosquitoes and cockroaches, preventing the spread of diseases.

In Gujarat, it is believed that a spider web in a home would lead to financial misfortune and the household will not prosper, says arachnologist Dhruv Prajapati, managing trustee of Web Of Nature (WON) Research foundation. “Spiders are perceived as evil creatures that bring bad luck. It is ironic because the state has Girnar hill, a famous pilgrim centre for Lord Dattatreya who named spider to be one of his gurus,” Prajapati says.

 Orb-weaver spiders or araneids are members of the spider family Araneidae. They are the most common group of builders of spiral wheel-shaped webs often found in gardens, fields, and forests. Image by Sujan Bandyopadhyay via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Orb-weaver spiders or araneids are members of the spider family Araneidae. They are the most common group of builders of spiral wheel-shaped webs often found in gardens, fields, and forests. Image by Sujan Bandyopadhyay via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Spiders are an order of arachnids that have been around on Earth for over 300 million years. These misunderstood creatures, may evoke mixed reactions, often fear and disgust, among people. And these fears manifest into myths and misinformed beliefs that could lead to misplaced efforts to eradicate spiders.

Some parts of Hindu mythology though, also deify spiders. In the same region of Andhra, in the Srikalahasti temple, the spider is worshipped for its committed devotion to the Hindu god Shiva. In another instance, it is believed that the fifth prakaram (corridor) of Trichy’s Jambukeswara temple was built by Lord Shiva himself, who took the form of a spider. Prominent Chola king, Kochengot Chola, who built the temple, claimed he was a spider in his previous life. Similarly, in another myth from coastal Karnataka, removing cobwebs during the festival period of Navratri is believed to attract a curse to the household. “Even though it is not true, it at least helps in the conservation of spiders as the month of October [when Navaratri is observed] is when they breed,” says Abhijit APC, founder of Saaliga, a Karnataka-based group that works on documenting new spider species and busting spider myths.

“In the Proto-Dravidian languages, ‘sali,’ which means spider, is used to describe weaving communities. Even today, many weaving communities, such as the Padmasalis, retain this name,” says arachnologist Samuel John, co-founder of Spiders and The Sea, a social enterprise.

So, why have these arachnids, once revered, now become objects of fear? “That’s because people generally lived in close association with nature back then. There is a disconnect now, leading to unfamiliarity. Over time, this unfamiliarity can lead to fear or curiosity,” John explained.

Misunderstood

Research says that globally, arachnophobia (fear of arachnids especially spiders) is likely the most widespread fear related to animals with an estimated prevalence between 3.5-11.4% of the population. These fears are further amplified by the spreading of unproven theories.

“Once every few years, a popular fake report of a spider species lurking under toilet seats of aeroplanes surfaces on social media. Few media houses published the news without any solid information and verification,” Vena Kapoor, an independent consultant who currently heads the Nature Classrooms Programme at Nature Conservation Foundation.

Such myths contribute to the killing of spiders, which in turn have impacts on the ecosystem.

A Neoscana spider. Image by Vena Kapoor
A Neoscana spider. Spiders are an order of arachnids that have been on earth for hundreds of millions of years. Image by Vena Kapoor.

Spiders are insectivores that control populations of their prey insects. “For example, crab spiders catch insects that prey on flowers. Just like a tiger has control over herbivores, spiders can have control over the arthropod population,” says Madhumita Rajkumar, Senior Research Fellow, Advanced Institute of Wildlife Conservation.

Out of thousands of spider species in India, so far, only the bite of spiders belonging to six genera – Chilobrachys, Loxosceles, Latrodectus, Macrothele, Poecilotheria and Cheiracanthium (comprising less than 2% of their population in India) – has been recorded to require treatment beyond first aid, says says Ayan Mondal, an arachnologist and assistant professor at Government General Degree College in West Bengal. He is currently writing a book on medically important spiders in India.

To conserve these arachnids, experts suggest a two-pronged approach: more research to understand spider behaviour and involving citizens to create awareness and reduce fear.

Understudied

Earlier this year, researchers from the Centre for Animal Taxonomy and Ecology (CATE), affiliated to the Department of Zoology, Christ College, Kerala, discovered four new species of spiders from the Western Ghats of India. With this, the number of spider species discovered in India till date is about 1,988, says Gautam Kadam, an arachnologist from CATE, who was one of the members that discovered the four new spider species in the Western Ghats. Some estimates also list more than 2000 species of spiders in India.

This discovery, as well as a few similar others in the past years, are important for Arachnology because spiders are one of the least studied taxa in India. While traditional taxonomists documented many species in the distant past, lack of funds make it challenging to document diverse areas and species now, says Madhumita Rajkumar of the Advanced Institute of Wildlife Conservation.

Even within the current research on spiders, there is more focus on a particular spider group – jumping spiders.

“Researchers in India are currently focussed on describing jumping spiders (of the Salticidae family). A huge opportunity awaits those studying other families. The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) along with other reputed institutes are better placed to make a difference by funding and collaborating with scientists to take the research on spiders forward,” says Prasanna Parab, a nature photographer who conducts spider walks in Goa and North Karnataka.

Inadequate research on spiders is an international problem. According to a study published in Frontiers, “the known diversity of spiders, around 51,000 species, represents but a fraction of their actual diversity that may be as great as 150-200,000 species.”

Across India, less than 25 researchers are working on studying spiders. “That’s because there is lack of funds from institutions,” Madhumita Rajkumar says. At least six researchers Mongabay India spoke to says that they did not receive funds from Indian institutions for research on spiders, leaving them no choice but to find funding themselves.

Hatched nymphs of Stink Bugs. Photo by Vena Kapoor
Hatched nymphs of stink bugs. Photo by Vena Kapoor.

“I had no luck with Indian funding agencies. However, U.S.-based International Society of Arachnology funded my research on spiders,” says Gautam Kadam. “Arachnology remains an unknown noun for many zoologists in India. These zoologists who occupy positions in reputed institutions are unwilling to fund projects on spiders,” says Mondal, who is using his own funds for his project.

“Government supported institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India and private funding grant organisations such as the National Geographic, WWF-India and The Habitats Trust, do give out small grants on surveys and understanding the conservation needs and status of poorly-studied and lesser-known invertebrate species. But there is also an urgent need to focus on ecological research and taxonomy of many invertebrates including spiders as we have no baseline information,” added Vena Kapoor. The natural history and behaviour of spiders and the impact of urbanisation, pesticide usage and habitat changes on arachnids are few topics that should take priority along with conservation.

Rajesh Sanap, an independent researcher who previously worked with the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), says “research on lesser-known species like spiders is scarcer in India than in the Western countries. And this can largely be attributed to the paucity of research funding and overall attention for non-charismatic species.” Sanap, who has discovered more than 30 new species in India, which include spiders, scorpions, snakes and geckos, is currently using his own money for his research on spiders.

Illegal trade of spiders is also rampant says Prajapati. Some spiders are not even protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, and with limited resources for spider research, discovery of species is slow, and many are disappearing before we can even discover and protect them, he says.

Prajapati adds that research on invertebrates is in its nascent stage in India, Prajapati says, “Authorities working in funding institutions are not even aware of the basic facts about the importance of spiders. While the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is funding studies for invertebrates, it is confined to professors and scientists from government institutions.”

Mongabay India wrote to a few funding agencies including WWF-India, West Bengal Department of Science and Technology and Biotechnology, and ZSI on the limitations of funding spider studies. At the time of publication, no response was received.

Citizen awareness

Besides facilitating further scientific research, another effective way to debunk spider misinformation is by involving citizens in awareness programmes and fostering a healthier relationship with spiders.

In Karnataka, for instance, Saaliga, a club for spider enthusiasts, has been working with school students and citizens to raise awareness about spiders. Abhijith APC, founder of the club, along with four other members, trained 150 people (forming a sub-team called the Karnataka Spider Club) from various walks of life in documenting spiders. Some of them have gone on to write in various science journals on the discovery of new spider species. Through regular interactions with school students and by conducting spider watching sessions, they also work to change the narrative that spiders are a bad omen. “The goal is to popularise spider watching, much like bird watching,” Abhijith explains.

In Bengaluru, a women’s group has also been fostering a growing interest in observing spiders on their monthly nature walks since September 2023. The group of about 20-30 women, observes nature in the urban setting, including spiders and insects, on their walks. “Discussions revolve around natural history and the fascinating behaviours of these creatures,” says Mittal Gala, founder of All Women Nature Walk.

A group of citizens taking part in a nature walk. Spotting spiders have become a part of these walks. Image by Mittal Gala.
A group of citizens taking part in a nature walk. Spotting spiders have become a part of these walks. Image by Mittal Gala.

Social enterprise Spiders and The Sea has also been bridging the awareness gap through urban nature walks and other outdoor programs for all age groups, delivering nature-based learning programs to about 500 young people in 20 educational institutions over the past four years.

Citizen science initiatives can also enable better documentation of spiders across the country, says Parab. In recent years, several genera of crab spiders (of the family Thomisidae), previously unreported in India but of significant interest to researchers across Southeast Asia, have been documented in the country (usually on biodiversity portals) by citizen scientists, Parab says.

Institutes like Azim Premji University in Bengaluru have an elective course called ‘Bugs in the System’ for non-biology majors, who explore arachnids and insects in the campus. Besides evoking curiosity, the course also tries to change the perspective of students on urbanisation disgust, where negative attitudes towards such creatures manifest as the emotion disgust.

Spiders are fascinating creatures that don’t deserve your shoe. They are microhabitat specialists that help humans by feeding on insect pests, like mosquitoes. “They are sensitive to sudden changes in their habitat, which makes them the ideal indicators of ecosystem function,” Sanap says.


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Banner image: Langelurillus tertius from Maharashtra in 2022. The spiders were found inhabiting rocky patches in shrubland habitat. Photo by Rajesh Sanap.

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