AKUMAL, Mexico (Reuters Life!) - Biologists have found a spider in Central America with a difference -- the world's first known vegetarian spider who dodges ants to get to its favored, protein-packed plant.
Unlike the 40,000 other known spider species that are thought to be mainly carnivorous, the Bagheera kiplingi of Central America has been observed feeding on the leaf tips of an acacia plant rather than the ants that guard the plant.
The small, jumping spider, which does not build webs to catch food, will occasionally dine on ant larva but far prefers a vegetarian diet, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology.
Named after the friendly panther in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," Bagheera Kiplingi would rather eat a meal of leaf tips than its fellow creatures.
"This is the first report of a spider that feeds primarily and deliberately on plants," said the researchers.
The spider's herbivorous diet was first discovered in 2001 in Costa Rica by Eric Olsen from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Six years later, the behavior was independently observed in Mexico by Christopher Meehan, then an undergraduate student at Villanova University in Pennysylvania.
The scientists joined forces with Robert L. Curry from Villanova University, Matthew Reudink from Trent University in Canada and T. Kurt Kyser from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada to describe the spider in this month's journal.
During field studies Meehan spent time watching the jumping spider on an acacia plant.
The plant was swarming with wasp-like acacia ants, who are known to survive by eating the plant while also protecting it from other predators.
But the Bagheera kiplingi, has, however, evolved to dart around the ants to steal the protein-packed tips of the acacia plant, known as Beltian bodies.
Reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith