"Surreal" Vegetarian Spider Found -- A First

October 12, 2009

A new discovery has taken the bite out of spiders' status as meat-eaters.

A tropical jumping spider that eats mostly plant buds has been identified, a new study says—making it the only known vegetarian out of some 40,000 spider species.

In the late 1800s, naturalists named the spider Bagheera kiplingi after a panther in British author Rudyard Kipling's 1894 children's book The Jungle Book.

"At that time in history, all the [naturalists] had was a tattered dead specimen," said study leader Christopher Meehan, a biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"They had no idea what it ate. But perhaps they knew that jumping spiders were cat-like in their movements, and [they] decided to name the spider after the agile panther Bagheera in Kipling's book."

"Utterly Surreal" Spider

Between 2001 and 2008, Meehan and colleagues studied the spider in its tropical habitat in southeastern Mexico and northwestern Costa Rica. (Get spider facts.)

They observed that the spiders ate nutrient-rich buds that grow on acacia plants.

The acacias are also home to a species of ant that live in the plants' hollow thorns. In a classic example of mutualism, the ants protect the plant in return for shelter and food, said Meehan, who conducted the research while at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

Yet the fast, stealthy Bagheera has figured out how to leap from thorn to thorn to collect its meal—while avoiding the highly aggressive ants.

Though the spider does occasionally snack on ant larvae, the bulk of its diet is plants, Meehan said.

"It is utterly surreal," he said, "to see a spider use such effective hunting strategies to hunt a plant."

Study published October 12 in the journal Current Biology.

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