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Saturday 24 March 2018

For the Love of Spiders

At age two, while most girls are discovering dolls and clinging to their mother’s skirts, Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal was chasing spiders in and around the family’s home in Point Fortin.

That childhood fascination with spiders has morphed into a lifelong love affair for which Sewlal, now an Instructor 111 at the Faculty of Science and Technology at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies, makes no apologies.

Known as the spider-girl among her friends and colleagues, she is currently documenting the fauna of spiders in the eastern Caribbean and further afield. She has already surveyed the islands of St Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, Antigua, Montserrat, St Lucia and the Bahamas.

And such is the fascination with spiders, and Sewlal’s own untiring work that she has been awarded a Caribbean-Pacific Island Mobility Scheme (CARPIMS) scholarship to study the spider fauna of Haiti.

“This is the first project for this scheme between The University of the West Indies and Universit? d’Etat d’Ha?ti,” Sewlal, 35, said of the scholarship. She is also working on a book on common spiders of the eastern Caribbean.

Sewlal’s work and research has taken her through undulating terrain at El Tucuche and El Cerro del Aripo, the swamps of Rousillac and dense forests of Mora, some of the most unlikely places one would expect to find a woman. But there she is, canvassing these rugged and far-flung destinations for spiders, often with the help of seasoned hunters as guides.

So recognised is Sewlal’s work, she was featured in an article in last month’s edition of National Geographic. In the article, written by Liz Langley, Sewlal was asked to respond to the queries of a reader from Belguim who had found a spider among her bananas and could not determine if it was venomous.

According to the article, Sewlal advised the person via e-mail that it was best to look up venomous spiders found in their particular area or areas they were visiting and in the case of a bite, “look for specific information on how to proceed with respect to treatment.

“Chances are, it’s not venomous: Few of the 40,000 known spider species can harm humans, Sewlal says by email. “But it’s wise to treat a spider as dangerous until you know better.”

She further advised that if someone did get bitten, “it’s a good idea to trap the spider so you can identify the species in case treatment is needed.”

In an interview on Wednesday with Sunday Newsday, Sewlal recounts the tale which led to her fascination with spiders from since she was a toddler.

“One day, my grandmother was doing the housework and I had developed a fascination with the vacuum cleaner so I wanted to vacuum practically everything. So I was “helping,” she remembers.

“A spider came down in the living room on a dragline of silk. She (grandmother) took the opportunity to show me that when disturbed, it would climb back up the silken line and after a while it would lower itself again. she left me playing with this and returned to vacuuming. “But then she heard me whimpering because the spider had gone beyond my reach. My grandmother scolded the spider and took a broom and brought it down and handed it to me to play with.”

After that Sewlal began collecting spiders and displaying them to her dolls.

“Sometimes, I also made my dolls play with the spiders. None of them got arachnophobia (fear of spiders and other arachnids),” she said with a laugh.

“Even today, I don’t think of spiders as a thing that only boys like.”

As a girl and only child, Sewlal said her family encouraged her fascination with spiders - a fascination which she says developed from her love for science generally.

“My love for science was well-known by my friends and family and my family never had a fear of animals and encouraged me to be around them, so it was no surprise. With respect to spiders, that was expected or more correctly, inevitable.

“I would constantly ask my mother to read me the book “The Story of the Spider” and my grandfather introduced me to insects on our daily afternoon walks. My father tried to get me interested in larger animals like turtles,” she added.

A graduate of Princes Town Senior Comprehensive School, Sewlal began studying for her first degree in Zoology at UWI, St Augustine, in 1999. Back then programmes dealing exclusively with the study of spiders were virtually non-existent.


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