What Is Detritivore?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

Detritivores are an important link in the ecosystem on land and in the sea. Without detritivores, the world would soon be overrun with dead plants, animals and fecal matter. These animals survive by feeding on decomposing matter. They help the decomposition process as well as speeding up the return of the nutrients to the soil. They are distinguished from other decomposers by their ability to ingest their food. Natures decomposers like bacteria, fungi and protozoa all absorb their food and metabolizing it molecularly.

Pixie’s parasol is a decomposer. They produce enzymes that can breakdown lignin in woods. © JJ Harrison.

But, they are different from scavengers

Detritivores can be found in every ecosystem living on any soil with inorganic component including the bottoms of lakes, rivers, streams and the ocean. Most people tend to confuse the detritivores with the scavengers. What sets the scavenger apart is their ability to eat large quantities of organic matter. Although both are a part of what scientists have termed the consumer – resource system.

They are found in many places

On land, you will find many types of detritivores living in woodland areas, where as in the watery environment they are commonly called bottom feeders. They are essential part of the food chain and major players in the nitrogen cycle. You see them all of the time in gardens and on the lawn, especially after a huge rain.

Earthworms are soil-dwelling detritivores. © fir0002.

Examples of detritivores

One of the most commonly seen detritivores is the lowly earthworm. They play a huge role in ecosystem by converting the larger pieces of dead organic matter into humus. This excretion is great for improving the fertility of the soil in the surrounding area. The earthworm has a strange digestive system that includes a gizzard that functions exactly like that of the chicken. They ingest the organic matter along with small rock or soil particles to aid in their digestion. The soil and rocks form a paste that is part of the worms excrement. This waste makes the nutrients more accessible to growing plants in the area.

Millipedes are also detritivores

Millipedes are nocturnal creatures that prefer humid areas and you see them most often, after heavy rains. The small creatures spend most of their time underground burrowing through the Earth. Much like the earthworm, the millipedes feeds on rotting organic material.

Woodlouse or roly polies

The woodlouse is a non-aquatic crustacean and is considered beneficial, especially to people that like composting. They can also be seen as pests since they will feed on cultivated plants. You’ll find them indoors when it is hot and dry in search of moisture. When you see a lot of wood lice in your home it is a good indication that there is a dampness problem, but they generally don’t infest a house’s wooden structure.

Good example of coprophagy, dung beetles. © Rafael Brix.

Dung beetles

As the name implies, the dung beetle feeds on fecal matter. Many of these beetles not only use the dung for food, but some will also roll it up into balls and use it as a brooding chamber. There is also one species of dung beetle that actually live in the manure.

Dung fly

The dung fly also lives and breeds in fecal matter. Gardeners the world over are filled with joy at the sight of these creatures. They help keep the soil rich and fertilized so that their prize winning flowers grow big and strong.

Burying beetles

Burying beetles are also known as a carrion beetle. These beetles bury the bodies of small animals like rodents and even small birds so that they will always have food. They are strange even for beetles in that the male and female both does parenting duty. The detritivores play a huge role in the life cycle of plants and animals on planet earth. This is a world where every living thing serves a purpose.

Related: Coprophagy: the behavior of feeding on fecal matter.

More on specialized diets

  1. Avivore
  2. Carnivore
  3. Herbivore
  4. Insectivore

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