In the world of spiders, the noble false widow (Steatoda nobilis) may not be the largest or most intimidating, but it certainly knows how to punch above its weight. A recent study found that this half-inch predator is partial to vertebrates, including lizards, bats, and even shrews. Yes, you read that right – the tiny spider has a thing for mammals.
The study, conducted by scientists from the University of Galway, captured a particularly gruesome scene outside a bedroom window in the south of England. A female noble tree spider was seen subduing and eating a pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus), a creature more than three times her size and weighing about 10 times as much. The video, made by zoologist Dawn Sturgess, demonstrates the spider’s impressive hunting skills. The study was published in the journal Ecosphere
Unlike large spiders that can hunt reptiles or mammals, small spiders such as the noble false widow use a combination of potent venom and strong silk to fight off huge prey. Like true widow spiders such as the black widow and red-backed spider, the noble false widow uses its neurotoxic venom to cause rapid neuromuscular paralysis in its prey.
The video shows a noble false widow’s web outside a bedroom window with a pygmy shrew entangled in its silk. The shrew was still alive but appeared immobile, probably under the influence of the spider’s venom. The spider moved back and forth between the shrew and the rafters above the window, using the silk to lift the prey up. After 20 minutes, the spider lifted the shrew up into the rafters, where it wrapped silk around it and fed on it for three days.
According to Michel Dugon, lead author of the study, this observation underscores that the noble false widow is perfectly adapted for taking down large prey. “The combination of a powerful venom, extremely tough silk, and sophisticated hunting behavior makes this spider a formidable predator,” he explains.
While it remains unclear how the spider caught the shrew, researchers speculate that the shrew climbed onto a wisteria bush outside a bedroom window, where it became trapped in the spider’s silk and was paralyzed by the venom. This is the first recorded case of a spider of the family Theridiidae attacking a shrew in Ireland and the UK.
The findings shed light on the amazing hunting abilities of the noble false widow spider. Its adaptations to habitual predation among vertebrates suggest its unique place in the animal kingdom. This tiny spider may be small in size, but it certainly has a large appetite for the unexpected.