Spider Scrutiny

Zoologist Binish Roobas talks of benefits from Arachnids, the solutions spiders provide

By Sujata Devadas, January 13, 2017

The natural spotter

Zoologist on a nature trail: Binish Roobas

“Spiders intrigue me. They are omnipresent, but we swipe them out of the way. They exist with such profusion in nature, I am absolutely certain they are there for a reason. Growing up in lush green Kerala, I developed a natural flair for spotting them. As a zoologist with a fascination for tiny critters, my observational skill is now an occupational asset.” says Binish Roobas, the first Indian to receive the Sheikh Bin Mubarak bin Mohammed Award for UAE Natural History in April 2016.

In 2008, Binish found a website on South Indian spiders set up by zoology professor Dr P A Sebastian of Thevara College in Ernakulam, Kerala and 8 others.

“I began my basic knowledge of spiders there. My fascination just mounted. What I required was field expertise.” From 2009, Binish and Gary Feulner, the Chairman of Dubai Natural History Group (DNHG), teamed up to do all their naturalist field trips together.

Surprisingly many

“Spiders can move in any direction. This unpredictability becomes an emotional problem for many of us” says Binish. “That and their eye-pattern freak us out.”

The UAE is estimated to have about 400 different types of spiders, of which more than 150 have been documented in the UAE. More are still being discovered. In April 2013, the Ischnocolus species of tarantula spider was discovered in Ras al-Khaimah by UAE resident and naturalist, Priscilla van Andel. This was intimated to members in the UAE Natural History Group publication, Tribulus.

“Apart from myself and Gary who combine to do research on spiders, other naturalists in UAE - Richard Hornby from Abu Dhabi,  Ajmal Hassan from Meliha and Peter

2013 ©Rick C West

April 2013: Ischnocolus species tarantula spider discovered in Ras al-Khaimah

Roosenschoon, a researcher at Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) - share their photographs with us" informs Binish. "Like me, Peter collects spiders. He discovered the presence of the Cebrennus genus in the UAE.”

Up comes the question, ‘Are they toxic?’ With a deadpan expression, Binish replies, “I do not know - unless it bites someone. We are looking for volunteers.” he says with a wink. 

Nature’s bio-control agents

Argiope genus, the signature spider

Ask Binish about the value of spiders, and he is on a roll. “Orb-web spiders and signature spiders (belonging to the genus Argiope and Araneidae family) protect crops like paddy. They trap moths and adult insects that lay eggs which metamorphose into larvae - caterpillars that swarm the crop and shrink production.”

“Moths are a hundred-fold more than butterflies. It is spiders that keep the moth numbers in check.

Remove the spiders, it will be a mess.”

“In tropical regions like Kerala, the Tetragnatha spider spins its webs over  stagnant pools of water. A lot of mosquitoes and water dependent insects reach their end in it, saving many from death by malaria and other illnesses transmitted by insects.”

Tetragnatha spider

 “Hundreds of different chemicals in spider venoms kill that many insects. Break down the venom and it reveals natural ways to control pests.”

Binish networks with many arachnologists spread across Iran, Australia  and Canada. One such expert living in British Columbia, Canada is Rick C. West, always attentive to any work that is done on the nature and impact of spiders. Rick has devoted a great deal of his attention to tarantulas.

© Gary McKinstry

Rick C.West and the Phormictopus cancerides tarantula spider

Both Rick and Binish praise the work of Australian biochemist, Professor Glenn King from the University of Queensland who identified 3000 different compounds in the Australian funnel-web spider’s venom. His work led to the use of this venom in making an effective, chemical-free agricultural pesticide - one that is safe for humans and beneficial insects like honey bees which pollinate almost 65 per cent of horticultural and agricultural crops in Australia.

Tarantulas and medical remedy

A stellar medical breakthrough, the possibility of synthesizing a drug treatment, to deter the progress of muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease, after Buffalo University Physiology and Biophysics Professor Dr. Fred Sachs and his research

team found that a protein in the venom of the Chilean Rose Tarantula can trigger sensors of muscle cells.

“Yet spiders,” laments Rick “are still greatly maligned, feared and killed on sight. Of the 46,385 known types of spiders in the world, less than 5% have had their venom studied.

Biocompatible silk

From spider venoms to spider webs, the silk that can stretch to 40 percent its normal length, stronger than high-density steel. In his article published in March 2015, writer Kaleigh Rogers hints at the likelihood that biocompatible spider silk could be used to create medical applications like artificial skin or muscle grafts. It could help regenerate bones.

But only spiders can produce this silk. To quote Kaleigh:

It starts out as a protein in the spider’s stomach which it spins into silk as it comes out of the body, so it’s not like you can just crack ‘em open and take out a spool of silky spider thread. It is possible to harvest the thread, but it’s not easy. In 2009 a 11-foot by 4-foot gold cape made entirely of spider silk was completed. It was the largest textile ever created using only spider silk, but it took 82 people, four years, and more than 1 million spiders to make it. 

Is it possible to recreate the spider silk synthetically? Making it biocompatible is the issue. The spiders win.

Just a small sample of what spiders can do.

Get in touch with Binish for more information 

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