Ecuadorian scientist Juan Pablo Jordán didn’t just conquer his childhood fear of spiders to become a spider scientist (arachnologist), he is helping to document his country’s wide variety of spiders before they disappear forever.
Orb-weaver spiders have been found in the fossil record all the way back to the Jurassic era, but in many parts of the world, including Ecuador, unique species are under pressure from a wide range of threats.
“We are racing to document the orb-weaver spider diversity in the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is heavily threatened by deforestation, oil exploitation, and illegal mining,” he said.
Jordán says his main project is to use comparisons of the physical features (morphology) of the genus Taczanowskia, a group of Orb-weaver spiders, to work out where in the evolutionary tree they belong, in comparison to other spiders.
“This project came hand in hand with a larger project in which we are looking to document the biodiversity of orb-weaver spiders in the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Amazon,” he said, “Using morphological data, we test the placement of the genus within the great Araneidae (family) phylogeny and propose the first phylogenetic tree depicting the relationships among the species.”
Fear to Fascination
Jordán says growing up in Quito, Ecuador, he was constantly surrounded by “natural richness”, which captivated his curiosity and “saturated my senses”.
“Naturally, I spent most of my formative years exploring the outdoors which inevitably influenced my decision to become a biologist,” he said.
But as a kid, Jordán never suspected that he would go on to study spiders in such detail for a simple reason: he was terrified of them.
“I vividly remember that as a child that I did not like spiders, I couldn’t be in the same room as one, and I couldn’t see pictures of them,” he said, adding that in an effort to cure his arachnophobia, he started forcing himself to interact with them outside.
Jordán says that as a freshman studying biology at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, he was able to expand his knowledge of spiders by joining an expedition to document the biodiversity of orb-weaver spiders on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“After spending three weeks deep in the Yasuni National Park, I was determined to join more expeditions to remote parts of the country to keep documenting the outstanding diversity of this group of invertebrates,” he said.
Jordán would then go on to be awarded a fellowship to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York as an international exchange student, focusing on the genetic relationships between spider species.
Jordán says the biggest challenge in his work is accessing the areas where the spiders he studies are found: the remotest places in Ecuador, many which still haven’t been surveyed.
“These are extremely isolated areas that most of the time need days to access on foot,” he said.
However Jordán says that a bonus of working in such remote regions is that he and his fellow researchers get to work side by side with local indigenous communities and leaders that provide their knowledge and support for our expeditions.
“Without them it would be impossible to uncover the biodiversity of Ecuador, and therefore their evolutionary relationships,” he said, “In fact, the new species is named in honor of the Waorani people and their fighting spirit.”
Jordán is currently back in Ecuador, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused him to cut short his studies at Cornell.
“I remain optimistic that I will be able to go back and finish my studies, but at the moment the US consulate in Ecuador is not granting extensions on US student visas, and the OPT (Optional Practical Training visa) is looking like my only option,” he said.
Jordán isn’t the only Ecuadorian cataloging the amazing biodiversity of his home country. Another is Juan de Dios Morales, a nature photographer and principal founder of the Wild GYE Initiative who says his group has been using camera traps to look for the last remaining individual Jaguar of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populated city.
Morales said a one-year camera trap project by Wild GYE yielded a total of 80 species of reptiles, birds and mammals including grey-backed hawks, king vultures, Agouti, Red Brocket Deer, Ocelots and even a first record of a Neotropical Otter found in this critically endangered tropical dry forest.