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What Is Filter Feeding?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

A filter feeder is an animal that uses the process of filtering water to take in particles that have nutritional value. It’s also called a suspension feeder.

Most of them are aquatic

Almost all of the animals that are classified as filter feeding animals are aquatic. Why is this? This is because in water, the act of filter feeding to obtain food is simple, all one needs to do is float in the water and catch food in your mouth. In fact, if an aquatic animal isn’t considered a filter feeder, then it has to fit in the bulk feeder or bottom feeder category. Standing on land with your mouth open isn’t likely to get you any food. So how do these aquatic animals survive by doing this process?

James’ flamingo has the finest filter feeding apparatus for birds. They feed on diatoms and algae. © Christian Mehlführer.

Lots of plankton

Luckily for the filter feeders in the ocean, there is a huge concentration of nutritional particles that float around in the water, mainly plankton, at all of the different depths of the ocean.

All sizes of animals can be filter feeders

And it doesn’t matter what size they are, as filter feeders can be as small as krill or as large as a whale! The blue whale is considered to be the largest animal species out there, and because it uses filter feeding to obtain its food, it’s also considered to be the largest omnivore out there. For feeders like the Antarctic krill, this method can be particularly successful. It’s important to know that whales and other filter feeders can even feed on other filter feeding animals.

Maxima clam, a small giant clam is a filter feeder. © RevolverOcelot.

Not all are aquatic

While many filter feeders are aquatic, some do walk on land. There are several examples of filter feeders in the animal kingdom including flamingos, krill, clams, whale sharks, mysids and mollusks to name a few.

How do they do it?

Now you may be wondering – how do filter feeders actually get their food? Many of the filter feeder animals use what’s called a filter basket, or if you’re a whale you use baleen, in the process of catching their prey. The nutritional particles that they collect are typically plankton and once they’ve caught this plankton, they do a siphoning motion to move it into their mouth so it can be eaten and digested. This can be a quick or slow process, depending on how the filter feeder typically obtains food and makes their movements.

Antarctic krill using filter feeding to feed on phytoplankton. © Professor Uwe Kils.

Other types of feeding

Filter feeding is classified as one of the major types of feeding out there which include deposit feeding, which is eating nutrition grown out of the soil like worms do. There’s also fluid feeding, which is trapping pray and turning them into liquid or drinking a liquid diet as with spiders and hummingbirds. Another major method is bulk feeding, which is a combination of the feeding types that several species, like humans, use.

The jellyfish is unique

While most filter feeders use the same or a similar process, one filter feeder in particular, the jellyfish, has a special approach to catching their prey. The jellyfish uses its unique tentacles to latch onto small plankton and other food particles in the water. How does the jellyfish get the food from its tentacles to it’s mouth? It actually makes a motion in the shape of a corkscrew and moves the tentacles to its mouth to eat its catch. While jellyfish tentacles look soft and squishy, beware! They have stingers that can paralyze their prey, making the jellyfish’s job as a filter feeder very easy.

It is very successful way to get food

Even though many species, like humans, don’t use filter feeding as their method of obtaining nutrition, one can clearly see the success that filter feeders have in obtaining their nutrients this way – particularly those that live in aquatic habitats. They can be big or small, and they use their adaptive body parts and their wits to survive and thrive in their environment.

Other feeding modes

  1. Deposit feeding
  2. Fluid feeding
  3. Phagocytosis feeding

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