The Carnivorous Diet of a Tarantula

A Brazilian salmon pink bird eating tarantula spider

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Tarantulas are highly skilled spiders capable of conquering just about any organism, even those larger than themselves. Their clever hunting tactics make them formidable apex predators and allow the animal to thrive in many environments. They are generalist hunters and opportunists that will always be able to find something to eat and few will be able to stand in their path.

Tarantula Diet

Tarantulas are carnivores, meaning that they feed on meat. They eat many kinds of large insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, June beetles, cicadas, millipedes, caterpillars, and other spiders. Larger tarantulas will also eat frogs, toads, fish, lizards, bats, and even small rodents and snakes. The Goliath birdeater is a South American species whose diet is known to consist partially of small birds.

Ingestion and Digestion of Prey

Like other spiders, tarantulas cannot eat their prey in solid form and can only ingest liquids. Because of this, when a tarantula captures a live meal, it bites the prey with sharp fangs, or chelicerae, that inject it with paralyzing venom. The fangs can also help to crush the prey. Once the prey is immobilized, the tarantula secretes digestive enzymes that liquefy its body. The spider then sucks up its meal using straw-like mouthparts under its fangs.

A tarantula has a "sucking stomach" that enables the ingestion and digestion of liquids. When the sucking stomach's powerful muscles contract, the stomach inflates, creating a strong suction that permits the tarantula to drain its liquefied prey up through the mouth and into the intestines.

Once the liquefied food enters the intestines, it is broken down into particles small enough to pass into the bloodstream through the intestinal walls. The nutrients are spread and absorbed throughout the body in this way. After feeding, the carcass of the prey is formed into a small ball and disposed of by the tarantula.

Where Tarantulas Hunt

Tarantulas hunt close to where they live, which is why they can be found preying on organisms in a wide range of habitats. Some genera of tarantulas hunt prey primarily in trees, while others hunt on or near the ground. They may choose where to seek food based on what is available nearby or what type of prey they are after.

Silk is very useful in hunting prey for many species of tarantulas. While all tarantulas can produce silk, it can be used in a variety of ways. Tree-dwelling species typically reside in a silken "tube tent" where they can watch for prey and eat their meals. Terrestrial species line their burrows with silk that stabilizes the burrow walls and enables them to climb up and down when it is time to hunt or mate. Unlike other spiders, tarantulas do not use their silk to trap or web prey.

Predators of Tarantulas

Though fearsome predators themselves, tarantulas are prey to many creatures. A certain type of insect, one that is much different from the small and defenseless prey a tarantula is accustomed to, is the most specialized predator to feed on tarantulas. Tarantula hawks are aptly named members of the wasp family.

These large and ruthless wasps track and attack large tarantulas with a sting that paralyzes them, but the catch is not for themselves. They carry their live prey to secluded nests where they lay an egg on the tarantula's back. When the egg hatches, the newborn wasp larva burrows into the tarantula's incapacitated body and feeds on its insides. The tarantula is eaten from the inside out and kept alive for as long as possible until the larva pupates and consumes it entirely.

Giant centipedes and humans also prey on tarantulas. Tarantulas are considered a delicacy by certain cultures in Venezuela and Cambodia and can be enjoyed after roasting them over an open fire to remove the hairs that irritate human skin.