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What Is A Scavenger?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

A scavenger is an animal that feeds on decaying organic matter and can be either carnivorous or herbivorous. While it may sound a bit off-putting, scavengers play an important role in every ecosystem. They consume the dead animal and plant material so that it does not just rot and spread diseases. Whatever a scavenger doesn’t eat will be left for the decomposers and the detritivores.

Griffon vultures feeding on a dead red deer. © Mario Modesto Mata.

They are important

The food web would break down completely without scavengers. There are three nutritional levels in the web. The first level is the autotrophs, these are organisms that produce their own food. Plants and algae are what immediately come to mind when thinking of this level. Plants and other members of the autotroph level are called producers. On the second level of the food web, you will find the herbivores, the organisms that consume the autotrophs. These are your primary consumers. On the last level of the food is where all your secondary consumers are, the carnivores and omnivores. The scavenges role in the food where is to keep the ecosystem free of carrion. They break it down and recycle it, and return it to the ecosystem as nutrients.

Bearded vulture is the only living bird species that specializes in feeding on marrow, with a 85% to 90% bone marrow diet. © Richard Bartz.

Examples of scavengers

The vulture, due to its biological adaptations, is the perfect scavenger. Using their strong sense of smell and excellent eyesight, they can unerringly locate rotting flesh from miles away. These birds, although very large, have very weak beaks and talons. Since they have no need to hunt or kill, there’s no reason for them to be strong. Most of the members of the vulture group are also bald, this way they don’t carry around bits of rotted flesh. A bacterial growth would cause an infection in a bird or carry disease from place to place.

Not all vultures eat rotting meat

There is one member of the vultures family, the Lammergeiers, also known as the bearded vulture, don’t eat rotting meat. These birds only eat bones. They take the bones to a great height and then drop them, thus breaking them into small pieces so that it is easier to get at the soft tissue inside. Other birds that eat dead flesh include crows, buzzards and seagulls.

Red weaver ants feeding on a dead African giant snail. © Narasha Mharte.

Insects are scavengers

The insect world also has its share of scavengers. In the insect world, some scavengers don’t wait for the animal to be dead to feast on its rotting flesh. If an animal or person has a wound, the dead flesh around the wound will attract blowflies. A colony of army ants can strip rotting flesh off a dead animal in a matter of hours.

Mammals that are scavengers

There are mammals that fall into the scavenger category, many of them, however, don’t only eat carrion, they will also hunt and kill prey. A coyote will eat just about anything, as will a hyena. Mice, rats, stray dogs and cats will eat the flesh of dead animals as well.

Marine animals

In the ocean, the shark is one of the most feared creatures, but most often he is searching the ocean floor for any dead carcass that he can find. They like an easy meal, as do most scavengers. The catfish, crayfish, shrimp and crabs are all scavengers.

They are careful

Most scavengers live precariously because they can be attacked by larger animals while attempting to feed on another’s kill. They also are a part of the eater-eaten relationship in nature, since when they die, other animals will feed on their carcasses. Scavengers are opportunistic feeders, but their place in the food chain is one of the most important. Without them and decomposers, the planet would be overrun with dead things which would breed bacteria that cause diseases.


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