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The Big Read: Spiders are ‘intellectual detective work’ for retired S’pore diplomat

SINGAPORE — Spend an hour or two with spider expert Joseph Koh, and one is bound to go away with a much greater appreciation of these arachnids — and perhaps, ideas on alternative uses for pantyhose.

The Big Read: Spiders are ‘intellectual detective work’ for retired S’pore diplomat

Spider expert Joseph Koh demonstrates how he catches spiders. Photo: Jason Quah

SINGAPORE — Spend an hour or two with spider expert Joseph Koh, and one is bound to go away with a much greater appreciation of these arachnids — and perhaps, ideas on alternative uses for pantyhose.

During a short walk in Bukit Brown cemetery last week, the 67-year-old retired diplomat found a spider that mimics ants, and another that had spun beautiful barrier webs to protect its main web, among others.

The Myrmarachne maxillosa waves its front legs in the air to simulate ant antennae, has slender legs, and also constricts part of its body to resemble the three-part body of an ant.

On why a spider would want to “pretend” to be an ant, Mr Koh said that most predators leave ants alone because they can bite and inject formic acid.

As for the “textbook shot” of barrier webs made by the Nephila pilipes (or Giant Golden web spider) — spun only by juveniles — Mr Koh shared a fact that he said women love to hear: Females can outweigh males by 30 times.

On the way back to his home nearby, Mr Koh showed how he had improvised and created his own aspirator, a device to suck up small spiders without harming them, and without having the spiders end up in his mouth — by slotting a piece of his wife’s pantyhose between two tubes attached to each other.

The bubbly retiree’s interest in spiders began long before he studied zoology at the then-University of Singapore. His late businessman father bought him many wildlife and natural history magazines, and guidebooks on various animals. The old Raffles Museum at Stamford Road became his favourite haunt.

When he was around 14, his father introduced him to macrophotography, prompting him to look closely for smaller creatures in gardens and nature reserves.

He was drawn to the sheer diversity of spiders in Singapore, and what has kept him going for more than 40 years is the delight and challenge of “intellectual detective work in getting a spider identified or described”.

Identifying Southeast Asian spiders is not as straightforward as identifying butterflies or dragonflies where the names may be quickly traced in reference books, Mr Koh said. He has to track down scientific literature, decipher descriptions, compare closely related specimens and narrow down possibilities, then make a judgment of what the specimen is or is not.

Mr Koh has described 13 new species of spiders, three from Singapore and 10 from Brunei, and has written a guide on common Singapore spiders and another book on the spiders of Borneo.

He has not slowed down since retirement in 2012, willingly taking young naturalists under his wing by leading field trips, welcoming them to work in his lab at home, and writing papers with them.

He has also pledged his 12,000 specimen collection to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and is involved in various groups helping to conserve or enhance nature in Singapore.

He is working on a new book on spiders here, where he estimates there are about 800 species.

One of his recent interns is Rachel Ashton Lim, 19, who is enrolling in a liberal arts school in the United States and wants to major in environmental analysis. Calling Mr Koh a “really good teacher” who encourages creative thinking, she said: “Something I learnt that was quite valuable for me was that in nature, there’s the intersection between the sciences and the arts… You have to appreciate every single little detail, even on the smallest spider.”

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