As published in the latest issue of Current Biology, researchers have identified the first-known mostly vegetarian spider out of the 40,000 discovered species in the world. The curious behaviour of this wide-eyed jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi, discovered in the late 1800’s and named after Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book panther, has until recently remained a mystery. But by observing the neotropical species from south-eastern Mexico and north-western Costa Rica, the team discovered its preference for plant material over meat. Instead of digesting prey externally and consuming the liquified remains like most spiders would, the Bagheera kiplingi will eat whole plant material. However, it has also been observed to eat the occasional ant, spider, or ant larvae. Lead researcher, biologist Christopher Meehan from the University of Arizona, notes that the Bagheera kiplingi is “the first spider known to specifically ‘hunt’ plants. It is also the first known to go after plants as a primary food source.”
Taking advantage of the co-evolved mutualism between wasp-like Pseudomyrmex ants and the acacia shrubs they inhabit, the majority of the Bagheera kiplingi’s diet consists of the nutrient-enriched leaf tip structures of the plant (Beltian bodies), which ordinarily act as the ants’ reward for protecting it from predators. And just how the Bagheera kiplingi manages to snatch the harvest from right under the proverbial noses of these typically aggressive ants is really quite ingenious, as Meehan explains,
“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.”
By building their nests in the oldest, most withered acacia leaves where the Pseudomyrmex ants are unlikely to patrol, the Bagheera kiplingi will use careful evasion tactics and its hydraulically-propelled jump to make its way to the Beltian bodies and back undetected. If spotted, it will use a line of silk to drop to safety. Meehan has also speculated that it might even be able to mimic the ants’ scent in order to mask its presence.
So I think I might know what’s going on here. Suddenly Bagheera kiplingi bursts onto the scene all like, “What? You guys, I’ve been a vegetarian for like, ever, and you’re only just noticing now? How self-involved are you?” even though you could have sworn that all spiders were predatory and need to eat things with faces in order to survive? I’m not buying it and I’m pretty sure I can spot a not-so-cunning ploy to impress that cute lady Pseudomyrmex ant who works at the book store across the road from your office when I see one. It was probably like, “Oh my god, Bagheera kiplingi, will you stop gazing wistfully out your window for once and fucking just ask her out? You’re starting to give me the creeps with that stuff.” So Bagheera kiplingi will reluctantly agree, you’ll pour him a stiff drink, and then tell him to go over and ask her for a Vonnegut and maybe a really expensive leather-bound journal or something because you have a lot of thoughts. The overwhelmed Bagheera kiplingi will ask, “Which Vonnegut?” and you’ll be like, “It doesn’t matter.”
“But she’ll think I’m some kind of hipster.”
“Probably. Hey since when is Bing our default now? What the fuck is that about?”
“What? Bing? Pretty sure we’re supposed to be talking about me here. Wait, did you just drink my scotch…?”
But against all odds, Bagheera kiplingi will somehow get the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant to agree to go on a date with him, and he’ll return to the office with a large armful of books, and a slightly anxious look on his face. You’ll ask him what’s wrong and he’ll be like, “Well, she kept talking about her colony and how they do everything together and she’s like, ‘I suppose you’d try to eat everyone if you ever came over, yeah?’ So I told her I’m a vegetarian.”
“I know. What else could I say? I panicked…”
So Bagheera kiplingi will take the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant out to dinner, she’ll have the Beltian bodies and he’ll have, “I don’t know. A salad or something.” They’ll get terribly drunk and while waiting for a taxi outside the restaurant, Bagheera kiplingi will try his luck and ask if he can stay at hers. She’ll agree (don’t judge her – it was a lot of wine for such a little ant) and they’ll go back to her colony and, you know, mate and stuff.
“So what happened?” You’ll ask him, as he deletes the cute book store Pseudomyrmex ant’s number from his phone the next day over coffee.
“Well when I woke up I was surrounded by all these creepy fucking ants and I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, chill guys, I’m a vegetarian, I’m not here to eat you…’ But they all just start fucking laughing at me like, ‘Dude, do we look worried?’ and suddenly they’re on me like fully biting and stinging me and shit.”
“So what did you do?”
“What anyone would do: I shook them off, bounced over to the nest and stole a couple of larvae, then bounced the fuck out of there.”
“Shit. So I guess the whole vegetarian thing is over?”
“Nah, I think I might keep it up for a while. Those Beltian bodies are actually kind of delicious, plus it really pisses those Pseudomyrmex ants off when I steal their shit.”
“So you’re a vegetarian out of spite now.”