Please tell us about yourself

It’s tiny, has eight legs, and is mostly harmless, yet it is one of the most feared creatures on Earth. Yes, we are talking about the humble spider. And while most humans can’t resist picking up a broom to shoo these tiny arachnids away, a few stare at the creature with pure fascination. Dhruv Prajapati, a young researcher from Gujarat, is one of the latter.

The 26-year-old is one of very few arachnological researchers in India. In fact, while researching for his Master’s dissertation he managed to identify 77 species of spiders all within the Gujarat University campus in India. Some of these were quite rare and few knew of their existence in the state. In 2016, Prajapati was awarded the Young Naturalist Award by wildlife and nature conservation magazine Sanctuary Asia.

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We spoke to the young man who is now pursuing a PhD in spider diversity from the Bharathiar University, Coimbatore. Over the past three years, he has conducted an in-depth study on these creatures spanning from the Western Ghats of Gujarat to Maharashtra, Goa and Kerala.

Dhruv Prajapati was awarded the Young Naturalist Award 2016 by Sanctuary Asia for his seminal research on spiders – a great contribution to biodiversity exploration in India.

From the hostel rooms of Gujarat University to the thick forests of Western Ghats, Dhruv Prajapati has been curiously looking for spiders — creatures many of us are scared of. Little do we realize that these arachnids that we dust away from our houses every weekend are carriers of the environment’s most important messages.

“Spiders are indicators of high levels of heavy metal pollution in the air. If you find arid region specific spiders thriving in a forest, you can predict that the forest is facing the threat of drying out. Some spiders are found across continents indicating how our continents were connected millions of years ago. The elasticity of spider silk is being leveraged to make bullet proof jackets. And spiders are also important in the field of modern medicine,” says Dhruv who is among the very few naturalists in India who are researching on spiders.

He adds, “Spiders are the lenses through which we can see the past and the future and researching them is crucial to know the pulse of our environment.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Dhruv was always a naturalist at heart who chose to specialise in Zoology out of his keen interest in the field. When he had to decide on his dissertation topic for his MSc, Dhruv was particularly attracted by spiders. He started looking for them at Gujarat University, where he was studying and happened to identify 77 different species of spiders. He then went on to identify six new species of, one of which he chose to name after our former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam – Tropizodium Kalami.

Tell us about your work

During his research, Prajapati has identified seven confirmed new species of Indian spiders.

  • Two of these belong to the ant-eating spider genus Tropizodium that are incredibly rare and have for the first time been reported from India. He has named one of these Kalami, after the country’s late President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and the other is called viridurbium.
  • The third and the fourth species, Cambalida tuma and Cambalida deorsa, belong to the genus Cambalida that was so far believed to be endemic to Africa and were reported by Dhruv for the first time in Asia.
  • The fifth and the sixth species are from the jumping spider family Salticidae – Stenaelurillus gabrieli (named after Padmabhushan awardee Dr Fr. Gabriel CMI, founder of the zoology department in Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi), and Langelurillus onyxLangelurillus is also an African genus and was reported in Asia for the first time.
  • The seventh one is Meotipa multuma from the family Theridiidae.

All these new findings were published in Zootaxa, one of the world’s leading scientific journals from New Zealand. Prajapati is also working on a bunch of research papers on new species, which, when approved by the international reviewers, will be added to his kitty of discoveries.

On being asked how dangerous the feared creatures are, he confidently replied, “most species are not harmful. And while almost all species have a certain amount of venom, they can only harm small creatures that are their prey and if they happen to bite a human, which is quite rare, they can cause just a small infection.” That being said, he added that Australian and North American spiders are much more venomous, though they don’t attack humans very often.

Not only are spiders supremely beneficial to nature, some species are really quite pretty. A particular favourite of Prajapati’s is the Peacock Spider that is found in Australia. Like birds, male Peacock Spiders court females by showing off their colourful abdomens that have flaps which they raise while dancing, to impress the female.

How does your work benefit the community?

He also reiterated how important spiders are to our ecology. “Spiders help in regulating insect population. In fact, 80% of the insect population is eradicated by spiders, which is much more than that of birds, and this helps farmers significantly.” Ground spiders can also detect soil toxicity as they are sensitive to metal pollution in soil. And should they enter your homes, hold back your urge to screech and call for help, for they are also getting rid of the actual pests in your house, including mosquitoes and other bugs that bite, annoy and spread disease.

What are you doing now?

Now full-time into Arachnology, Dhruv has moved to Kerala and works at the Sacred Heart College, Thevara, Kochi. “I am truly fascinated by the Jumping spider. It is difficult to classify, and the diversity of the species is remarkable. If you find 100 specimen – 75 will be unique!” says Dhruv.
Sure enough, we find that according to Wikipedia, the Jumping spider has 5,800 recorded species and 600 genera – while the researchers are far from done. Also, Dhruv does have a few more papers waiting to be published, but refuses to divulge details.