Vegetarian spider

Bagheera kiplingi is unique amongst spiders: it’s a vegetarian.

Bagheera Kiplingi vegetarian spider
Maximilian Paradiz, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are more than forty thousand different species of spiders in the world today. All of them have one thing in common: they’re predators. Whether they feed on ants, flies, mosquitos, bees, or (like the Goliath birdeater) worms, mice, and hummingbirds, spiders are quintessential hunters. So you can imagine the scientific community’s surprise when, in 2009, researchers discovered one species that broke the mould.

Bagheera kiplingi is a tiny iridescent green spider found in Central America. While it sometimes eats ant larvae or other Bagheera kiplingi, more than ninety percent of this spider’s diet comes from plants. Yup, it’s a vegetarian spider!

Specifically, Bagheera kiplingi eats little nubs that grow on the end of Vachellia shrubs. The Vachellia nubs, known as Beltian bodies, evolved in cooperation with an ant species; the ants protect the shrub, and the shrub provides shelter for the ants. This kind of mutual reinforcement is not unusual in ant species – some other time I’ll write about the devil’s gardens of the Amazon Rainforest – but in this case the nubs have become the ultimate power snack for little spiders. Rich in fat, sugar, and protein, they fulfill pretty much all the needs of the Bagheera kiplingi diet.

The name, Bagheera, comes from Mowgli’s black panther friend in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It may seem odd to name a vegetarian spider after a carnivorous predator, but the spider name predates discovery of its diet by more than a century.

[Thanks to David S.]

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