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For the love of spiders

Published: 
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Dr Jo-Anne Sewlal has been featured on the popular site livescience.com. Last year she discovered five new species of spiders in Trinidad which she intends to document.

Most two-year-olds run away from spiders, but Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal was playing with them at that age. Now an instructor in zoology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, she’s sought after by international Web sites to share her expertise in the field of arachnology. 

Sewlal has been featured on the popular site livescience.com in recent months, as she shared her knowledge on Black Widow spiders for an article on types of spiders and spider facts, published on November 4.

Last year, Sewlal discovered five new species of spiders in Trinidad which she intends to document. Without flinching, she shared a story, smiling, about a room she stayed in once where there were tarantulas crawling on the ceiling. She hasn’t named the five new spiders which she discovered throughout the island and did not want to reveal exactly where they were found while researching for her thesis, while pursuing her doctorate. She believes the discovery is important because it could help boost T&T’s eco-tourism market for nature lovers. Sewlal usually goes into deeply-forested areas to find the spiders for her research.

Most of the spiders in the Eastern Caribbean have not yet been documented, but through her work, she hopes many people throughout the Caribbean will soon be able to identify the various species and know which ones are poisonous and which ones are not. She has already visited St Kitts, Nevis, St Lucia, Anguilla, Grenada, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St Vincent and Dominica. 

Her love of spiders began as a toddler when she was staying with her grandmother in Point Fortin. She was mesmerised by a house spider that was coming down from the roof on a silk thread.

“My grandmother was fearless with animals. She was cleaning one day and a spider dropped down on a dragline of silk, so I was looking at it and she went on to explain that if you touch it, it would go back up and if you give it a little time it would come back down. So she left me playing with it and it was basically like an automatic yo-yo,” she said during an interview with the T&T Guardian at the Department of Life Sciences.

Sewlal would forget her fascination with the creatures for a while when she attended secondary school at Princes Town West Secondary. However that first interaction at her grandmother’s house would still inspire her to study zoology and last year, she graduated with a PhD. She decided to specialise in arachnids in the Eastern Caribbean after she met now-retired professor of entomology Dr Christopher Starr. 

“UWI had just finished hosting the American Arachnological Society meeting. That was the first time it was held outside of America and the host, Prof Starr, came with a poster...a spider with a rasta cap. He was explaining about spiders and that there’s nobody doing work on spiders and their ecological importance.” 

Sewlal initially began to study birds, but soon realised she did not have the same enthusiasm for them, especially after seeing the scratches that her supervisor had to endure when trying to trap them for research. 

While going through her options she noticed that the spider section in the manual she had to choose from was very small and her love of the creatures helped her to cement the decision. 

“The spider section was so small and I said it’s better that I do something I love, that I can contribute to and make that chapter a lot thicker,” she laughed.

Sewlal admitted that a lot of people are shocked by what she does for a living but said after she teaches them about spiders they are usually happy because she is able to help them understand which spiders pose a threat to human health. She is also able to help people understand that spiders are not scary and added that people just need to understand how spiders think.

There are two poisonous types of spiders in T&T, the Brown Widow (Latrodectus geometricus) and the Sac spider (miturgidae), but she explained that it is very unlikely that a healthy adult would die from their bite: all spiders bite but they use different types of venom and most of them have just enough to kill small prey like cockroaches.

This country may not have any seriously deadly spiders, but this is why we need to protect our borders especially when importing things like fruits and vegetables, as new species could be introduced if there are not proper quarantine facilities, she said. Sewlal says there are at least 53 spider families in T&T and about eight more could be discovered, based on those found in Venezuela. 

Sewlal also finds time to educate people about biodiversity throughout the Caribbean. 

“One of my other passions is public awareness, so when I go to the other islands I always tried to get an interview done by the mass media, to let them know first of all that I’m not nuts, because they will see me with a net, and what I am doing and how it is going to contribute to their biodiversity. So I just use whatever I can to help educate people,” she said. She also edits the Environment Tobago Newsletter.

Sewlal just cannot explain her love of spiders and why she is so comfortable with them but vows she will never stop learning about them.