In July last year, 34-year-old reptile photographer Somnath Kumbhar saw a spider with a black body, just over 3 mm long, and lighter legs sitting on a leaf of the jasmine plant on the windowsill of his home in Maharasthra’s Thane district. Kumbhar, who had been shooting spiders for over eight years, immediately noticed that this insect looked different from the ones he had previously seen.

He reached out to his friend, naturalist Dhruv Prajapati, who is a research fellow at an environment research institution in Gujarat. Prajapti is working on his PhD dissertation on the spiders of South Gujarat. Prajapati noted that he was unable to identity the spider species from the photos he had been sent, so asked Kumbhar to collect a speciment.

Kumbhar sent it to Prajapati’s laboratory, along with another spider with a reddish-brown body that he had found in the Kalyan forest in Thane a few months before.

Nine months later, in a paper in a journal titled Arthropoda Selecta, Prajapati, Kumbhar and three other colleagues announced to the world that they had found a new species of jumping spider, so-called because most members of this family can take great leaps. They decided to name the species Icius tukarami, after Assistant Sub Inspector of Mumbai Police Tukaram Omble who had been killed during the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.

Omble was instrumental in capturing Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab alive, providing irrefutable evidence that the 10 men who attacked Mumbai had been dispatched from across the border. When Kasab’s vehicle was stopped at a barricade, Omble grabbed the barrel of his gun and prevented the bullets from hitting anyone else.

“He gave a supreme sacrifice for the country, and I have simply tried to dedicate a species name to immortalise him through my work in whatever way possible,” Prajapati said.

The other spider Kumbhar had found in Kalyan had with a reddish-brown body that they decided to call Phintella cholkei, in the memory of Kamlesh Cholke, a friend of one of the authors of the research project.

After receiving the spider specimen, Prajapati spent around six months researching the specimens, detailing and illustrating their organ structures.

“Each spider species has a unique reproductive organ – the way every human has a unique fingerprint,” explained Prajapati. “That’s how you identify a new species. Currently, in the World Spider Catalog, there are about 49,000 species of spiders. When we discover a species, we have to first study its characteristics against the catalogued spiders to find whether it is new or not.”

As it turns out, these were not the first new species discovered by 29-year-old Prajapati, who holds an MSc degree in zoology from Gujarat University: he has already discovered 13 new species of spiders.

The first spider species that Prajapati discovered was in 2016. He named it Tropizodium kalami, in a nod to former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam.

People in uniform are high on the list of figures after whom he names newly discovered spiders. In 2019, he announced the discover of Icius vikrambatrai, named after Captain Vikram Batra, an Indian Army officer who was killed in action during the Kargil War in 1999.

He named another discovery Phlegra abhinandanvarthmani, after Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, an Indian Air Force pilot who was captured in 2019 in Pakistan after his plane was shot down across the border.

Prajapati said that he developed an interest in studying spiders while completing his Masters’ dissertation on the spiders of the Gujarat University campus in 2014. “Many people don’t understand how spiders are important to our environment – they’re responsible for controlling 80% of the insect population,” he said.

By 2016, at the age of 24, he had already published papers in respectable international publications such as Zootaxa and the Journal of Threatened Taxa. That year, he was awarded the Young Naturalist Award by Sanctuary Asia for his contribution to the research and protection of spiders, especially in the Gujarat region.

Not many people are aware of the rich diversity of India’s spider species, Prajapati said, and a great deal of is remains undiscovered. He said that only about 20-25 people in India are researching spiders spiders. He also said that he was one of the only people doing extensive research on the spider species of Gujarat.

Before he joined the government institution in Gujarat where he now works in 2018, Prajapati used to work with eminent Indian arachnologist PA Sebastian in Sacred Heart Institute, Cochin.

Said Prajapati: “People just say spiders are disgusting, but I think they’re fascinating creatures and there is a lot of scope for further research on them, especially in India”.