For ages, ants have had a monopoly on the coveted acacia, protecting the plant from would-be predators in exchange for shelter and food, or so they thought. Skulking in the background, and recently discovered, is an unlikely competitor of the ant — a spider. And this is no ordinary arachnid. The Bagheera kiplingi also happens to be a vegetarian, and is the first of its kind known to science.
“This is really the first spider known to specifically ‘hunt’ plants,” said Christopher Meehan of Villanova University. “It is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source.”
The veggie-loving tendency of this jumping spider was first discovered in Central America back in 2001 by Eric Olson of Brandeis University. Since then he has teamed up with Meehan, who independently observed the jumping spider in 2007, to learn more about this unusual creature and the extent to which it likes plants. Not only is Bagheera kiplingi the only predominant vegetarian of 40,000 known spider species with plants making up more than 90 percent of its diet, but it’s showing scientists a complex side of arachnid biology and behavior that indicates the spider’s diet is just the beginning of this animal’s surprising life history.
Ants are aggressive defenders of the acacia plant making life difficult for outsiders who attempt to encroach on their turf. After all, they want those yummy beltian bodies all to themselves. So how is the jumping spider managing to exploit the acacia for both food and shelter?
Science is still trying to figure that out, but preliminary research shows the spiders take advantage of the invertebrate equivalent of run-down real estate, setting up residence in less-than-desirable regions of the acacia. But their ingenuity doesn’t stop there. Bagheera kiplingi are outsmarting their ant foes, said Meehan, exploiting their intelligence and agility to get around the ants. “Individuals employ diverse, situation-specific strategies to evade ants, and the ants simply cannot catch them,” he said.
As if to add insult to co-evolution, the ants may not even know when spiders are in their midst. Bagheera kiplingi literally dupes the ant by baring young that look like carbon-copies of the ants, and Meehan has reason to suspect that the spiders actually wear a sort of insect perfume that makes them smell like their would-be attackers.
More research is forthcoming, including a look at the possibility that spider dad’s help raise the babies, a virtually unheard of behavior in spider biology. In the meantime, I hear Meehan and Olson’s methods included high-definition video of these smarty-pant vegetarian spiders. Now that would be some footage to see.
Meehan and Olson’s study is available in the October 12 issue of Current Biology.