The last thing one usually wishes when amongst the peaks of the Himalayas is to keep their eyes fixed firmly on the ground, fishing for spiders. Yet it is researchers with their noses to the ground who’ve found first reports of a species of Cribblet spiders previously unknown to India from the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh.
The spider is of the Draconarius genus, hitherto recorded only in China, which shares its geographic boundaries with Lahaul through the Tibetan Himalayas. It was discovered by Dr. Irina Das Sarkar of the Wildlife Institute of India, working on a grant from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) under the “All India Coordinated project on ParaTaxonomy & Capacity Building” (AICOPTAX) project since January, 2020.
Dr. Sarkar’s project proposes to give the first national database for Trans-Himalayan spiders ever attempted in India, and the first baseline invertonization of spider species for the state of Himachal Pradesh. The AICOPTAX project aims to not only derive help from the local community as field assistants but also to train them in technical aspects such as identification of the taxon they help the researchers find so that the local community can also be duly recognised for their work.
“By doing this we plan on building a team of parataxologists across various taxa, of which spiders are only a part” said Sarkar while speaking to Mint.
Cribblet spiders – also known as Cribellate – are named for their possession of the specialized “cribellum” organ, which helps them make thick, sticky webs. These species dwell mostly close to the ground and are very sensitive to movements in it. “Because it is so sensitive to movements in the ground, we are assuming that it can be a potentially indicative taxon of disturbances in the ecosystem around Lahaul, though we are yet to conclusively establish it” said Sarkar.
Spiders, in general, are fantastic ecologically indicative species, as their habitats are highly specialized. Specific species are found in specific environments, and they’re sensitive to even tiny changes in their ecosystem. For example, the spider Araniella maasdorpi, was found only in Poplar plantations of Keylong during the survey. Similarly, tarantula species of the family Nemessidae, are found only in lower elevation areas of the Eastern Himalayas. So, a species found away from its natural habitat or rapidly changing in population provides an excellent indicator of the health of complex ecosystems like forests whose health can be difficult to track.
Besides, spiders are also nature’s ultimate superpredators whose population keeps a check on the rapidly multiplying insect species which would otherwise be drowning the planet. According to a 2017 BBC report, they top the global predator charts, devouring 400-800 million tonnes of prey collectively for a population of 25 million tonnes. Impact on their numbers and habits has enormous cascading effects for the ecosystem of which they are part.
Despite this scientific relevance, research into spiders, and arachnids in general, is woefully scant. “We don't know where and how the distribution of these species is in India, especially northern India because we are the first to conduct [this research” said Dr. Manju Siliwal, arachnologist at the Wildlife Institute of India while speaking to Mint. “The occurrence of this cribblet spider genus in India is a reflection of how understudied this taxon is in general, and how fragmented our knowledge is of Indian spiders, especially in the Himalayan region” said Dr. Sarkar.
A large part of the reason, the researchers cite, is the lack of glamor – mostly associated with exotic species like tigers and snow-leopards – in spiders. “It is hard to be taken seriously amongst bureaucrats, forest officials, field assistants and even fellow environmental researchers when you tell them you study spiders,” said Sarkar. This negatively impacts funding and attitudes towards the value of research in spiders, which in turn reflects in the scarce expertise and field data to be found on the subject in India.
Even with the best of intentions and funding, the taxonomic classification of spiders can be expensive and highly technical. The species is so diverse and so understudied in general that classification of a new discovery can be a tedious affair requiring an expert each in their own respective taxon. “Besides, not everyone can have a powerful microscope required to do the genitalia analysis required to ascertain a new species,” Siliwal points out, making research even more challenging from an economic and logistical perspective.
Regardless, formal documentation on the lines of this project, the researchers believe, forms the frontlines for a systematic scientific study of arachnids and their relations to ecologically sensitive environments such as the Trans-Himalayas.
“A systematic dataset of diversity for any species forms the backdrop of all research into their conservation and impact on ecology” said Dr. Robin Panjikar, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Dehli, and a herpetologist working on collating a similar dataset for frog-diversity in India.
The discovery of the cribblet species, along with other findings of the taxonomic project, are being prepared for publication during this year. However, “we are 99% sure this is a new species in India” said Dr. Siliwal, an expert on spider taxonomy who had overseen the genitalia analysis on the cribblet spider species. Further analysis based on peer-review of the paper is awaited, but the researchers remain confident in their findings.
Binit Priyaranjan is a freelance journalist, author and poet.