“Roger, don’t be alarmed.”
That was the warning Justine Latton’s husband issued before instructing his friend to look above his head. The pair had been in the middle of fixing a door inside an old ski lodge at Mount Field National Park in Tasmania when Latton’s husband noticed they weren’t alone.
Less than a foot away, a huntsman spider, about the size of an adult’s hand, was perched near the top of the door — and a dead pygmy possum was dangling from its gleaming black fangs.
“That’s kind of disgusting and weird and amazing,” Latton told The Washington Post she thought when her husband, who requested that his name not be used, first showed her photos of the grisly scene back in April.
Latton wasn’t the only person shocked by the “possum-eating spider.” Pictures of the hairy arachnid and its mammalian snack shared to Facebook last week by Latton have since gone viral, highlighting an unusual occurrence that spider experts find fascinating but others are calling the “stuff of nightmares.”
But as striking as the photos may seem, Latton stressed the importance of understanding scale. While the spider was “one of the biggest” her husband had ever seen, the dead possum was about the size of a large walnut, she said. There are two species of the minuscule marsupial found in Tasmania: Eastern pygmy possums and little pygmy possums. The Eastern variety ranges in weight from 15 to 43 grams. Little pygmy possums are the smallest of their kind in the world.
Bryan Fry, a professor with the University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, told The Post he estimated the spider to be about nine inches in diameter.
“It’s a good-sized spider,” Fry said. “It’s not some sort of Godzilla spider.”
Huntsman spiders, known for their size and speed, are commonly found across Australia, so Latton said her husband and his friend weren’t “freaked out” when they realized a fairly large one had been lurking around the bare-bones ski lodge.
“It’s the sort of place that you’d really expect to find a spider,” she said.
The limp pygmy possum hanging from its mouth was a different story.
When her husband alerted his friend to the odd duo hovering near his head, Latton said Roger remarked, “Goodness me, you don’t see that sort of thing every day.”
The eight-legged critter’s typical diet consists of insects, Fry said, which is why most Australian residents welcome them into their homes. The spiders are often found hiding behind dressers or paintings.
“You move a painting and then there’s something that looks like an alien face-hugger looking back at you,” he said.
Despite the spiders’ fearsome appearances, Fry, a venom expert, described them as “benign, friendly residents.”
“They’re not a dangerous spider,” he said. “They’re not one I mind having around my house. I’d rather have a few huntsman and less cockroaches.”
Huntsman spiders feeding on small rodents is “not common, but it’s not unheard of,” he said. Unlike other spiders that use webs to ensnare their prey, huntsman chase theirs down and immobilize them using venom.
“I wouldn’t expect a pygmy possum to be taken out so easily, so there’s a chance that perhaps that animal might have been ill or injured for it to be predated on,” Fry said.
He added: “It’s not something you would normally see, so the novelty does make it quite interesting.”
There have been other instances of large spiders going after rodents, Graham Milledge, a collection manager of arachnology at the Australian Museum in Sydney, told The Post.
In 2016, video of a huntsman spider scaling the side of a refrigerator while toting a dead mouse went viral. A few months ago, scientists released a recording of a tarantula the size of a dinner plate killing an opossum in the rain forests of southeastern Peru.
Spiders will try to eat “anything that comes within their grasp . . . that’s a size they think they can handle,” Milledge said.
On social media, Latton’s photos drew mixed reactions, ranging from fascination to horror.
“I would be so freaking excited if I were lucky enough to witness this,” a user commented on Facebook. “Thanks for the share of such an epic photo.”
Others felt the photos signaled, as one person wrote, that it was “time to leave the planet.”
Though the images have terrified many, Fry stressed that huntsman spiders are beneficial, especially for pest control.
“Don’t try to kill them,” he said. “Take a live-and-let-live approach.”
After snapping pictures of the huntsman spider and its meal, Latton said her husband and his friend successfully moved the pair outdoors using an old ice-cream container.
“No spiders were harmed in the relocation effort (too late for the possum)," she wrote in a Facebook message to The Post.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described pygmy possums. They are marsupials.