The explorers also found large spiders preying on frogs and lizards and a "centipede eating a dead coral snake that it had decapitated", the press release said.
Scientists watched on in amazement as a dinner-plate-sized tarantula in the Amazon was seen eating an opossum for the first time.
"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", Grundler said on the university's web site.
"This is an underappreciated source of mortality among vertebrates", said evolutionary biologist Daniel Rabosky of the University of MI (U-M).
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Spiders are among the most diverse arthropod predators in the tropics. In the video above, doctoral candidate Mike Grundler describes the tarantula as "about the size of a dinner plate" and says that seeing the spider eating a mammal was "very unexpected". "When we do surveys at night, some of the spiders we see will have prey, typically other invertebrates like crickets and moths".
Over the years of charting life-and-death struggles between vertebrates and arthropods, the scientists had enough material to take the unusual a step of compiling a scientific paper, featuring 15 of their greatest hits.
"We were pretty ecstatic and shocked, and we couldn't really believe what we were seeing", Grundler said. But knowledge of these interactions remains limited.
They noted the opossum - around the size of a fist - was still alive when they spotted it.
Rick West, an independent arachnologist and tarantula expert not involved with the study, notes by email that "tarantula predation on vertebrates is not a common thing, but it does happen". "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".
A MI news release said that an opossum expert at the American Museum of Natural History confirmed the researchers had "captured the first documentation of a large mygalomorph spider preying on an opossum". "But it is a special human bias that leads us to think that this is somehow freakier than many other ways of dying: there is nothing pretty about most predation, whether it is coming from lions or peregrine falcons or crocodiles or anything else". While the tarantula in the genus Pamphobeteus will usually jump at the chance to eat a frog, it allows individuals of one species, the dotted humming frog (Chiasmocleis royi), to share its underground burrow.