Scientists have discovered the world’s first vegetarian spider, which eats nectar-filled leaf tips rather than other animals. It is the first of about 40,000 species of spider known to survive by eating plant food.
The jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi, which lives in Central America, has been found to steal the nectar-filled leaf tips of acacia bushes, called Beltian bodies, which are jealously guarded by a species of ant against any would-be herbivores.
Scientists have found that the spider uses its excellent eyesight, agility and cunning to dodge the attentions of the ants, which are involved an mutually-beneficial “symbiotic” relationship with the acacia, which provides food and housing for the ants in return for their protection against leaf eaters.
The research, published in the journal Current Biology, revealed that the Beltian bodies are the main food source for the spiders, which “cheat” the system by taking the plant food without doing anything to protect the tree.
The spiders were found to be almost entirely vegetarian in Mexico but supplement their diet with prey including ant larvae more often in Costa Rica. The scientists, led by Christopher Meehan of Villanova University and Eric Olson of Brandeis University in the US, said the spiders may mimic the ants’ chemical scent.
Mr Meehan said: “Jumping spiders in general possess incredibly advanced sensory-cognitive skills and eight-legged agility, and Bagheera is no exception.
“Individuals employ diverse, situation-specific strategies to evade ants and the ants simply cannot catch them.”
Being vegetarian may also have influenced other social habits of the species, with hints that the males help to care for eggs and young – a tactic which is virtually unheard of among spiders, the researchers said.