For hunting spiders, catching prey is hard work – and one species appears to have given up the chase in favor of a vegetarian diet. The rare Bagheera kiplingi of Central America is the world’s first vegetarian spider, munching on ‘Beltian bodies’, specialized leaf tips produced by the acacia shrub, instead of insects.
This is really the first spider known to specifically 'hunt' plants; it is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source," said study Christopher Meehan of Villanova University, who co-authored a study on the veggie spider along with Eric Olson of Brandeis University.
While other species have been seen drinking nectar before, B. kiplingi is the only species known to subsist entirely on plant matter, or even known to consume solid plant matter at all.
Meehan and Olson determined the spider’s diet by analyzing the isotopes in its body tissue to identify the source of its food, finding that the ratios of isotopes were identical to those found in protein-rich Beltian bodies.
To get to the Beltian bodies, B. kiplingi spiders must get around the ants that act as ‘bodyguards’ for the acacia shrub, protecting it from other herbivorous insects.
They normally accomplish this by targeting older leaves that are less patrolled by ants, but they occasionally go after the ants themselves, making jerky movements that mimic the ants’ own in order to sneak up on them.
The spider appears to have been named after British author Rudyard Kipling and one of his characters, Bagheera the black panther of beloved novel The Jungle Book.