Researchers say that there's only one place in the world to escape bat-catching spiders and that is Antarctica. These arachnids ensnare and pounce on bats are everywhere else in the world. Bats rank among the most successful groups of mammals, with the more than 1,200 species of bats comprising about one-fifth of all mammal species. Other than owls, hawks and snakes, bats have few natural enemies.
Still, invertebrates have been known to dine on bats. Giant centipedes in a cave in Venezuela were seen killing and eating bats, and the arachnids known as whip spiders were spotted feeding on dead bats in caves of the Caribbean. Cockroaches have been observed feeding on bat pups that have fallen to the floor of caves.
Accidental deaths of bats in spiderwebs were known as well, but were very rare. Spiders are known to occasionally dine on a variety of vertebrates. Fishing spiders capture and devour fish and frogs; some species of wolf spiders, huntsman spiders, tarantulas and related spiders have been seen killing and eating frogs and lizards; and tarantulas and comb-footed spiders have apparently fed on snakes and mice. There are also numerous reports of spiders killing other flying vertebrates, snagging birds with large orb webs.
Recent studies of a web-building spider species and a tarantula species both killing small bats led researchers to suggest that bat captures and kills due to spiders might be more frequent. So they analyzed 100 years' worth of scientific reports, interviews of bat and spider researchers and the staff of bat hospitals and scans of image and video sites. The search revealed 52 cases of bat-catching spiders worldwide.
Approximately 90 percent of known bat-catching spiders live in the warmer areas of the globe, in the third of the Earth surrounding the equator. About 40 percent live in the neotropics while nearly a third live in Asia and more than a sixth live in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Eighty-eight percent of the reported cases of bat catches were due to web-building spiders, with giant tropical orb-weaving spiders with a leg-span of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) seen catching bats in huge, strong orb-webs up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide.
In instances in Costa Rica and Panama, the spiders had built their webs near buildings inhabited by bat colonies. Bat-catching via spiderwebs was also witnessed particularly often in the parks and forests of the greater Hong Kong area. Future research may investigate whether the huge webs that sometimes block the entrances of tropical bat caves in east and southeast Asia and the neotropics may occasionally snag any members of the giant swarms of bats that emerge from the caves at night.
The other 12 percent of cases were from spiders that hunt without webs. Tarantulas were seen eating small bats in tropical rainforests in Peru and eastern Ecuador and on the forest floor in northeastern Brazil. A reddish parachute tarantula was also seen predating on a small bat, while a huntsman spider was observed capturing and killing a small bat. An attempt by a large fishing spider to kill a bat pup was also witnessed.
Most bat prey of spiders are small or juvenile insect-eating bats, and usually are among the most common bat species of their areas. Bats entangled in webs were usually 4 to 9.5 inches (10 to 24 cm) in wingspan, including some of the smallest species of bats in the world, and they sometimes died of exhaustion, starvation, dehydration or overheating, but there were many cases where spiders were seen actively attacking, killing and eating these victims.
Bats are likely capable of detecting spiderwebs via echolocation, their biological sonar. Even if bats do collide with spiderwebs, only the strongest traps are likely capable of withstanding the energy of such an impact without breaking. As such, bat captures are likely rare. The catch of a 2-gram bat by the giant orb-weaving spider Nephila pilipes would be a bonanza about 10 times the mass of the average daily catch of insect prey.