An arachnophile’s journey: A career spinning webs of spider expertise
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Ansie Dippenaar-Schoeman, author of Field Guide to Spiders of South Africa, is one of the foremost experts on African spiders.

As a professional arachnologist, Dippenaar-Schoeman has devoted her entire career, spanning more than 55 years, to the study of spiders, and she shares snippets of that prodigious career with us here.

‘South Africa’s rich fauna includes 72 spider families and 2,270 species that are presently known, but many more species await description.’

My love for the natural world began very early on. I grew up on a farm near Bronkhorstspruit and spent much of my time outdoors. Then at high school, I was privileged to have an inspiring Biology teacher. Married with my love for the outdoors, this set the stage for my career in science.

After I’d finished school in 1967, I started working as a technical assistant at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). Here, I was appointed to a team conducting a five-year termite control project, where I spent two-thirds of the year sampling spiders as part of field work undertaken in the Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State provinces. It was fascinating work, but I soon realised that if I wanted to advance my career, I would need to obtain a degree.

I enrolled at Unisa for a BSc degree, with Zoology and Psychology as my main subjects, which I completed in 1971. I then moved on to, what is now, the University of Johannesburg for my postgraduate degrees, which included an MSc thesis on spiders as predators in strawberry beds, and a PhD dealing with a revision of some genera of the crab spider family, Thomisidae, which I obtained in 1981.

During my studies, having recognised the lack of information on arachnids in South Africa, I used every opportunity to broaden my research interests. Much of my research focused on spider diversity and the role they play in agroecosystems as biological control agents. This involved doing surveys at various orchards (avocado, macadamia, pistachio, citrus and vineyards) and cultivated crops (particularly cotton, maize and vegetable crops), and culminated in a review paper published in 2013 on spider biodiversity in South African agroecosystems, in which several agrobiont species were identified. This meant that, for the first time, we were able to market spiders to farmers as ‘their best friends’.

In 1972, I was responsible for developing the National Collection of Arachnida (NCA) at the ARC. The first records were the specimens sampled during the five-year termite control project, which I briefly worked on at the start of my career. As curator of the NCA, I helped to develop a database to eventually house the more than 200 000 specimens. The NCA represents by far the largest arachnid collection on the continent and one of the largest collections of African spiders in the world.

Many years later, I had the pleasure of working with Dr Rudy Jocqué of Belgium. Together, we published two major arachnological textbooks: African Spiders: An Identification Manual in 1997, and Spider Families of the World in 2006.

African Spiders was ground-breaking. The book collated information on all the spider families of the Afrotropical Region and included identification keys to the families and diagnostic characters, lists of genera, and discussions of the natural and taxonomic history of each family. Spider Families of the World provided a complete synopsis of global spider family diversity, identification keys, and diagnostic and descriptive characteristics for each family.

The same year African Spiders was published, the South African National Survey of Arachnida (Sansa) was formed by local arachnologists with the aim of collecting, describing and documenting the arachnid fauna of the country. As project manager, I was responsible for directing and executing field surveys, sorting and identifying material from surveys and museum collections, capturing specimens on our database, and ensuring the effective extraction of archived information.

In 2006, I was able to secure funding from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for Sansa, through the Norwegian Development Agency. This funding was invaluable in helping us produce the important 2006 summary document, the ‘First Atlas of the Spiders of South Africa’, which provided detailed locality records for more than two thousand species, with distribution map for each species; and in 2020, to provide the first Red List for spiders in the country.

Sansa allows us the platform to educate those interested in spiders, scorpions and other arachnids and promote them to scientists, naturalists, amateur collectors and postgraduate university students alike. We also send out newsletters, posters and species pages, and present a series of radio talks, field guides and identifications workshops. The result is more than 300 papers published, that cover subjects such as biodiversity, conservation, ecology, taxonomy and predatory behaviour of spiders.

Sansa also provides an identification service to photographers. The digital camera and macro photography has opened up a whole new world to science, and footage of intricate webs and interesting behaviour of spiders have resulted in renewed interest.

South Africa’s rich fauna includes 72 spider families and 2,270 species that are presently known, but many more species await description. Almost 60 percent of all species are endemic to South Africa and another 18 percent to southern Africa. It is impossible to capture all these species in one book, so in Field Guide to Spiders of South Africa, representative genera and species have been chosen to give the reader an overview and to enable the identification of the more common spiders encountered in the field and in and around the house. I hope the book will encourage people to observe spiders and photographers to document our spider fauna so that one day, we will be lucky enough to a footage of every species in the country.

Field Guide to Spiders of South Africa is out now.


This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine about books for book lovers from Penguin Random House South Africa.   


Categories Lifestyle Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Ansie Dippenaar-Schoeman Field Guide to Spiders of South Africa Penguin Random House SA Struik Nature The Penguin Post

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