Jo-Anne Sewlal

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While the rich biodiversity of Trinidad and Tobago is well known generally, few people beyond the scientific community would think to apply the term to the country’s arachnid population. It may, therefore, come as a surprise to the average person to discover that Trinidad and Tobago is home to an estimated 1000 species of spiders. Luckily for these spiders, one woman is determined to make a name for them and is hard at work cataloguing not just the spiders of Trinidad and Tobago but of several Eastern Caribbean islands as well.

Dr. Jo-Anne Sewlal, a zoologist at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, was the recipient of the NIHERST 2012 Award for Excellence in Science and Technology for Junior Scientist for her impressive studies to date. She has made it her goal to collect as much data as possible about the spider species in the region. So far, her research has taken her to Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Antigua and St. Lucia, where she has sampled and observed the local arachnid populations, with the aim of creating a thorough record of the species in each island. For many of these islands, Sewlal’s research has been the first of its kind undertaken.

Sewlal also conducts similar research in Trinidad and Tobago, though she admits that cataloguing in her home country is a much more daunting task. Unlike the islands of the Eastern Caribbean, Trinidad’s geological link to the South American mainland has endowed it with much greater biodiversity, including more than ten times as many spider species as other islands.

Loss of plant and animal species can have potentially devastating impacts on ecosystems and, therefore, on human life. In an era of increasing environmental destruction and the effects of climate change, it is imperative for scientists to gain greater understanding of the specific roles and niche value of species in order to ensure balance and safeguard sustainability.

Issues like deforestation, quarrying and a general lack of concern for the environment pose major threats to the region’s biodiversity. Although Jo-Anne Sewlal’s work recording local species goes a long way towards understanding our biological heritage, the destruction of natural habitats means that many species of arachnid will be lost before they are even discovered. Some of these may have had possible medical applications in terms of their venom.

Spiders occupy intermediate levels in food webs, meaning that they act as food for organisms in higher trophic levels and predators to those in lower levels. Reduced spider abundance and diversity could, therefore, also affect organisms at multiple levels of the food chain, especially lower ones like insects, since spiders are major regulators of insect populations.

The mission of preserving these species and their habitats is heavily dependent on building awareness among the general population and Sewlal has certainly been gaining increased visibility through her research. She is the author of over 37 scientific publications including 29 research articles in international journals relating to: arachnology, biodiversity, ecology, systematics, taxonomy, cytogenetics and biogeography, and over 390 general publications in the area of biodiversity, ecology, entomology, zoology, natural history, behaviour and environmental issues.

Her work has been featured in the media of most of the Caribbean where it has taken place. However, she has also captured the attention of international media. In 2011, she was asked by the Science Channel, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, to demonstrate how to capture spiders in the field and to discuss the importance of spider silk and its renowned  properties, like its great strength and elasticity.

Sewlal also raises environmental awareness through her series of weekly columns for the “Environment TOBAGO” section of Tobago News, and through her membership in various environmental organisations. She is optimistic that, “The more people know about the planet and understand the interconnectivity amongst species, the more they will respect and appreciate it and protect the delicate balance that supports environmental sustainability. Without these natural habitats, my spiders won’t be there.”

Her affection for arachnids, reflected in her reference to “my spiders”, springs from childhood and her wider fascination with the natural world, and led to her choice of studies at university later on.

She attributes her early curiosity about wildlife to her home environment, growing up in a household in which there was always an interest in nature. Her grandfather, Hakim Nobbee, often took her for walks to observe creatures like tadpoles, dragonflies and butterflies, while her father, Jonathan, nurtured her appreciation of larger animals on their frequent visits to the Emperor Valley Zoo.

Her first encounter with a spider as a small child suggests her passion for them was truly love at first sight: “I remember one day when my grandmother, Ayesha Nobbee, was doing the housework, a spider dropped down on a dragline of silk. It was the first time I had seen a spider. She told me if I touched it, it would go up and then after a little while, it would drop back down. So she left me playing with it and testing the spider to determine if her words were true. After a few minutes, she heard me whimpering and jumping up, trying to get at the spider, which had now climbed beyond my grasp, and she said, ‘Oh oh, you want to play with it.’ So she promptly took a broom and brought it down and handed it to me. My grandmother was fearless of animals, so it was always strange to me when people hear what I study for a living and ask me why, as a female, am I interested in spiders and not scared of them.”

From this anecdote, the difference between Sewlal and the average little girl is immediately clear. While most children on the whole would recoil, Sewlal gravitated towards the spider. Whether this response was the result of her grandmother’s encouragement or some nascent attraction to arachnids, her inquisitiveness and fearlessness were qualities Sewlal ultimately brought to her work as an arachnologist. She adds, “My mother, Enid, was responsible for developing my analytical skills, when she mentioned how the spider fauna in houses had changed over the years. She said that, growing up, it was very common to see the large flat hairy spiders, locally called ‘machak’ or ‘money spiders’, which were replaced by tiny spiders with prominent black bodies of the family Scytodidae (spitting spiders). These, in turn, have now mostly been replaced with those with long skinny legs often found in webs in the corners of rooms commonly known as ‘Daddy long-legs’ of the family Pholcidae.”

Unlike the vast majority of Trinidad and Tobago students, Jo-Anne Sewlal was homeschooled for the duration of her primary education.  She went on to receive her secondary education at three schools: Phillips Comprehensive Educational Institution for Forms 1-3, St. Kevin’s College for Forms 4-5, and Princes Town Senior Comprehensive for A-Levels, where she was repeatedly on the Dean’s Roll and won the prize for biology.

In 1999, Sewlal started her B.Sc. in zoology at UWI, St. Augustine and chose to remain there for her M.Phil and Ph.D. also in zoology. The focus of her dissertation was a biodiversity survey of the spider families Araneidae, Nephilidae and Tetragnathidae in Trinidad, exploring in particular, the ways in which these species of orb web building spiders interact with each other and the differences in their habitats, behaviour and genetic makeup.

While the experience of studying a subject that has long captured her heart is rewarding enough, Sewlal’s research has also earned her a great deal of recognition. She has won numerous local and international awards, including a record three time win for the American Arachnology Society’s Vincent Roth Award for her work on the spider fauna of the Eastern Caribbean. In 2010, she was also recognised as having been both the first female and the youngest individual to win the Caribbean Academy of Sciences (CAS) Young Scientist Award, which provided funding for her to continue her research on spiders. Still, one of her proudest moments, Sewlal says, was the invitation extended to her in 2008 by the Smithsonian Institute to travel to Washington D.C. to identify their collection of spiders from Tobago.

In addition to awards, Sewlal is a member of several professional and scientific organisations such as the Linnean Society of London, (which derives its name from the father of taxonomy, Carl Linneas); the Royal Entomological Society; Society of Biology (from which she gained Chartered Biologist and Chartered Scientist status); International Arachnological Society; and the American Arachnological Society.

Sewlal’s interests and talents are by no means limited to science and arachnology. As a child, her poetry appeared in local newspapers and she says that, in her teenage years, she was seriously considering a career in computer technology and also dance, since she had been trained in multiple genres.  She also plays instruments like the piano, guitar, cuatro, steelpan, melodica and the recorder. Within recent years, she has been taking every course she can find on home renovation. Jo-Anne Sewlal is the definition of a multi-faceted individual who proves that being a Jill-of-all-trades does not exclude you from being a master of one.

For the future, she would like to write nature guide books on the spiders of Trinidad and Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean, so that persons from all walks of life, both Caribbean and visitors, can also learn to identify and appreciate these amazing creatures.