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Giant Amazonian spiders hunt some surprising prey

A wandering spider (Ctenidae) preying on a subadult Cercosaura eigenmanni lizard. (Credit: Mark Cowan/

Researchers have documented 15 rare and disturbing predator-prey interactions in the Amazon rainforest including keep-you-up-at-night images of a dinner plate-size tarantula dragging a young opossum across the forest floor.

Warning to arachnophobes and the faint of heart: This is the stuff of nightmares, so you might want to proceed with caution.

The photos are part of a new article in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. Arthropods are invertebrate animals with segmented bodies and jointed appendages that include insects, arachnids (spiders, scorpions, mites, and ticks), and crustaceans.

spider eats fish
A fishing spider (genus Thaumasia) preying on a tadpole in a pond. (Credit: Emanuele Biggi/Amphibian & Reptile Conservation).

The article details instances of arthropod predators—mostly large spiders along with a few centipedes and a giant water bug—preying on vertebrates such as frogs and tadpoles, lizards, snakes, and even a small opossum.

Spider predators

“This is an underappreciated source of mortality among vertebrates,” says Daniel Rabosky, an associate professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of Michigan and an associate curator at the university’s Museum of Zoology. “A surprising amount of death of small vertebrates in the Amazon is likely due to arthropods such as big spiders and centipedes.”

“…we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing…”

Once or twice a year, Rabosky leads a team of researchers (faculty members, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates) and international collaborators on a month-long expedition to the Los Amigos Biological Station in the remote Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru.

“We were pretty ecstatic and shocked, and we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing, we knew we were witnessing something pretty special, but we weren’t aware that it was the first observation until after the fact.”

spider eating frog
A wandering spider (genus Ancylometes) in the lowland Amazon rainforest preying on a tree frog (Dendropsophus leali). (Credit: Emanuele Biggi/Amphibian & Reptile Conservation)

The study site, in the lowland Amazon rainforest near the Andes foothills, is in the heart of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. The team’s main research focus is the ecology of reptiles and amphibians. But over the years, the scientists have witnessed and documented numerous interactions between arthropod predators and vertebrate prey.

“We kept recording these events, and at some point we realized that we had enough observations to put them together in a paper,” says Rabosky.

Rainforest buffet

Spiders are among the most diverse arthropod predators in the tropics, and previous reports of spider predation in the Amazon include prey from all major vertebrate taxonomic groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

But knowledge of these interactions remains limited, especially given the diversity of vertebrate prey and potential arthropod predators in species-rich tropical communities. The new paper includes observations from 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2017.

spider eating opossum
A tarantula (genus Pamphobeteus) preying on a mouse opossum (genus Marmosops). (Credit: Maggie Grundler/Amphibian & Reptile Conservation)

“These events offer a snapshot of the many connections that shape food webs, and they provide insights into an important source of vertebrate mortality that appears to be less common outside the tropics,” says the study’s first author, Rudolf von May, a postdoctoral researcher in Rabosky’s lab.

“Where we do this research there are about 85 species of amphibians—mostly frogs and toads—and about 90 species of reptiles,” von May says. “And considering that there are hundreds of invertebrates that potentially prey upon vertebrates, the number of possible interactions between species is huge, and we are highlighting that fact in this paper.”

In addition to the Los Amigos Biological Station, researchers made other observations at the Villa Carmen Biological Station, also in Peru’s Madre de Dios region, and at the Madre Selva Research Station in the Loreto region of northern Peru.

Hunting at night

Nearly all of the sightings were made at night, when the arthropod predators are most active. During their night surveys, team members walk slowly through the forest with flashlights and headlamps, in single file, scanning the forest and listening intently.

During one of those night surveys, doctoral candidate Michael Grundler and two other students “heard some scrabbling in the leaf litter.”

“We looked over and we saw a large tarantula on top of an opossum,” says Grundler, a coauthor of the paper. “The opossum had already been grasped by the tarantula and was still struggling weakly at that point, but after about 30 seconds it stopped kicking.”

The tarantula was the size of a dinner plate, and the young mouse opossum was about the size of a softball. Grundler’s sister Maggie pulled out her cell phone and shot photos and some video.

Later, an opossum expert at the American Museum of Natural History confirmed they had captured the first documentation of a large mygalomorph spider preying on an opossum. The infraorder Mygalomorphae is a group of mostly heavy-bodied, stout-legged spiders that includes tarantulas.

“We were pretty ecstatic and shocked, and we couldn’t really believe what we were seeing,” Michael Grundler says. “We knew we were witnessing something pretty special, but we weren’t aware that it was the first observation until after the fact.”

Most predatory arthropods rely on specialized body parts and venom to capture and paralyze vertebrate prey. These adaptations include modified jaws, enlarged beaks, and massive fangs. Some groups have evolved dozens of venom proteins that are injected during prey capture.

Arthropods attack

Other predator-prey interactions documented in the paper include:

  • Several examples of large spiders of the family Ctenidae preying on frogs and also a lizard. Most of the predation events documented in the paper involve spiders, and most of those were ctenids, which are commonly known as wandering spiders. Ctenid spiders are sit-and-wait predators that hunt at night and use specialized hairs on their legs to detect air vibrations and the direction of prey. Their principal eyes are responsible for object discrimination, and secondary eyes detect motion.
  • A large scolopendrid centipede consuming a live Catesby’s snail-eater snake, and another centipede eating a dead coral snake that it had decapitated. “Coral snakes are very dangerous and can kill humans,” says doctoral candidate and study coauthor Joanna Larson. “To see one taken down by an arthropod was very surprising. Those centipedes are terrifying animals, actually.”

In addition to predation events, the researchers also report on lethal parasite infections in lowland Amazonian frogs and commensal relationships between spiders and frogs. A commensal relationship is one in which one organism benefits and the other is not harmed.

“One of the coolest things about working in Peru is the sheer number of species that you encounter every day simply by walking in the forest,” says Larson, who studies the evolution of diet in frogs. “Every day you see something new and exciting.”

“One offshoot of the work that we’ve been doing is this collection of odd natural history events we’ve witnessed involving arthropod predators and vertebrates,” she says. “I have not reached the level of being grossed out by any of it yet. We’ll see what else Peru has to offer.”

Additional coauthors of the paper are from International League of Conservation Photographers; the Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, Peru; the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco; the Museo de Biodiversidad del Perú; John Carroll University; the Museo de Biodiversidad del Perú; the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Peru; the University of California, Berkeley; the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Peru; and the University of Michigan.

Support for the research came from a fellowship from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to Daniel Rabosky, as well as the Amazon Conservation Association, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Rosemary Grant Award, the Edwin C. Hinsdale UMMZ Scholarship, and the University of Michigan.

Source: University of Michigan