Detritivores, also known as detrivores, detritophages, detritus feeders, or detritus eaters, are heterotrophs that obtain nutrients by consuming detritus (decomposing plant and animal parts as well as faeces).[1] There are many kinds of invertebrates, vertebrates and plants that carry out coprophagy. By doing so, all these detritivores contribute to decomposition and the nutrient cycles. They should be distinguished from other decomposers, such as many species of bacteria, fungi and protists, which are unable to ingest discrete lumps of matter, but instead live by absorbing and metabolizing on a molecular scale (saprotrophic nutrition). However, the terms detritivore and decomposer are often used interchangeably.

Adonis Blue butterflies
Two Adonis blue butterflies lap at a small lump of feces lying on a rock.

Detritivores are an important aspect of many ecosystems. They can live on any type of soil with an organic component, including marine ecosystems, where they are termed interchangeably with bottom feeders.

Typical detritivorous animals include millipedes, springtails, woodlice, dung flies, slugs, many terrestrial worms, sea stars, sea cucumbers, fiddler crabs, and some sedentary polychaetes such as worms of the family Terebellidae).

Scavengers are not typically thought to be detritivores, as they generally eat large quantities of organic matter, but both detritivores and scavengers are the same type of cases of consumer-resource systems.[2] The consumption of wood, whether alive or dead, is known as xylophagy. Τhe activity of animals feeding only on dead wood is called sapro-xylophagy and those animals, sapro-xylophagous. It is a good source of manure.

Earthworms are a good example of soil-dwelling detritivores.


Mycena interrupta
Fungi are the primary decomposers in most environments, illustrated here Mycena interrupta. Only fungi produce the enzymes necessary to decompose lignin, a chemically complex substance found in wood.

In food webs, detritivores generally play the roles of decomposers. Detritivores are often eaten by consumers and therefore commonly play important roles as recyclers in ecosystem energy flow and biogeochemical cycles.

Many detritivores live in mature woodland, though the term can be applied to certain bottom-feeders in wet environments. These organisms play a crucial role in benthic ecosystems, forming essential food chains and participating in the nitrogen cycle.[3]

Fungi, acting as decomposers, are important in today's terrestrial environment. During the Carboniferous period, fungi and bacteria had yet to evolve the capacity to digest lignin, and so large deposits of dead plant tissue accumulated during this period, later becoming the fossil fuels.

Decaying tree trunk.
A decaying tree trunk in Canada's boreal forest. Decaying wood fills an important ecological niche, providing habitat and shelter, and returning important nutrients to the soil after undergoing decomposition.

By feeding on sediments directly to extract the organic component, some detritivores incidentally concentrate toxic pollutants.

See also


  1. ^ Wetzel, R. G. 2001. Limnology: Lake and River Ecosystems. Academic Press. 3rd. p.700.
  2. ^ Getz, W. (2011). Biomass transformation webs provide a unified approach to consumer–resource modelling. Ecology Letters, doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01566.x.
  3. ^ "Nitrogen in Benthic Food Chains" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-06-10., Tenore, K.R., SCOPE publication.

Birmanites is a genus of trilobites in the order Asaphida, family Asaphidae.

They lived in the Ordovician period, from the Tremadocian age until the Lower Ashgillian age (488.3-449.5 million years ago). These arthropods were a low-level epifauna, fast-moving and detritivore.


Ceratarges was a genus of Lichidan Trilobite from the Middle to Late Devonian. It lived in what is now Jbel Issoumour in Morocco as a detritivore.

Chancia (animal)

For the commune in France, see Chancia.

Chancia is an extinct genus of Cambrian trilobite. It was a "fast-moving epifaunal detritivore" from Canada (British Columbia, specifically Burgess Shale, and Newfoundland) and the United States (Idaho, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont). Chancia was a particle feeder. Its major characteristics are a normal glabella but an enlarged cephalon due to a pre-glabellar field in front of the glabella, as well as developed eye ridges, medium-sized genal spines, and an extremely small pygidium.


The Curimatidae, toothless characins, are a family of freshwater fishes, of the order Characiformes. They originate from southern Costa Rica to northern Argentina. The family has around 105 species, many of them frequently exploited for human consumption. They are closely related to the Prochilodontidae.

This family lacks jaw teeth, although they do sometimes have small teeth on their pharyngeal plates. They eat films of slime coating underwater surfaces, which consist largely of algae, zooplankton and detritus. It has been suggested that feeding behavior of some species like Psectrogaster essequibensis may change its diet pattern in function of the sediment content of the water, showing a regime mainly based on algae in waters with high sediment load, until an omnivorous or detritivore regime in waters with low sediment load.


Decomposers are organisms that break down dead or decaying organisms, and in doing so, they carry out the natural process of decomposition. Like herbivores and predators, decomposers are heterotrophic, meaning that they use organic substrates to get their energy, carbon and nutrients for growth and development. While the terms decomposer and detritivore are often interchangeably used, detritivores must ingest and digest dead matter via internal processes while decomposers can directly absorb nutrients through chemical and biological processes hence breaking down matter without ingesting it. Thus, invertebrates such as earthworms, woodlice, and sea cucumbers are technically detritivores, not decomposers, since they must ingest nutrients and are unable to absorb them externally.


Megistaspis is a genus of trilobites in the order Asaphida and family Asaphidae.

They lived in the Ordovician period (478-449 million years ago), from the Upper Tremadocian age until the Lower Llanvim age. These arthropods were a low-level epifauna, fast-moving and detritivore.


Metacalymene is a genus of trilobites in the order Phacopida, family Calymenidae. This genus is considered monotypic, containing only the type species:

Metacalymene baylei Barrande, 1846.These trilobites were nektobenthic detritivore. They lived in the Silurian period in the Ludlow epoch, from 422.9 ± 1.5 to 418.7 ± 2.8 million years ago.

Monodactylus argenteus

Monodactylus argenteus is a species of fish in the family Monodactylidae, the moonyfishes. Its common names include silver moonyfish, or silver moony, butter bream, and diamondfish. It is native to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, including the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and associated estuaries, such as the Mekong Delta.This species reaches a maximum length of about 27 centimeters. It is bright shiny silver with yellowish edges to the fins. The dorsal and anal fins have black tips. Juveniles have more yellow coloration and are distinguished by two vertical black bands.

This species occurs in a wide variety of habitat types, including the open ocean, brackish waters, and the freshwater habitat of rivers. In Australia it can be found in harbors and estuaries around piers. Its ability to survive in a wide range of salinities makes it a model organism in the study of salinity tolerance. Juveniles are especially tolerant to salinity changes, easily maintaining homeostasis in variable environments such as estuaries.Although the silver moony displays territorial behavior, the species can be kept in saltwater aquaria and is easy to rear in captivity. It can remain solitary or form schools. It is a detritivore and planktivore.

The myxozoan parasite Kudoa monodactyli was first described from and named after this fish.


Odontochile is a genus of trilobites in the order Phacopida, family Dalmanitidae.These trilobites were fast-moving low-level epifauna and detritivore. They lived in the Devonian period, from 414 to 391 million years ago.

Pagurus bernhardus

Pagurus bernhardus is the common marine hermit crab of Europe's Atlantic coasts. It is sometimes referred to as the common hermit crab or soldier crab. Its carapace reaches 3.5 centimetres (1.4 in) long, and is found in both rocky and sandy areas, from the Arctic waters of Iceland, Svalbard and Russia as far south as southern Portugal, but its range does not extend as far as the Mediterranean Sea. It can be found in pools on the upper shore and at the mean tide level down to a depth of approximately 140 metres (460 ft), with smaller specimens generally found in rock pools around the middle shore and lower shore regions, with larger individuals at depth. P. bernhardus is an omnivorous detritivore that opportunistically scavenges for carrion, and which can also filter feed when necessary.

Pagurus bernhardus uses shells of a number of gastropod species for protection, including Littorina littorea, Littorina obtusata, Nassarius reticulatus, Gibbula umbilicalis, Nucella lapillus and Buccinum. In the warmer parts of its range, the sea anemone Calliactis parasitica is often found growing on the shell occupied by Pagurus bernhardus. In colder waters, this rôle is filled by Hormathia digitata. Hermit crabs fight one another for gastropod shells and have a preference for shells of certain species.

Peniagone vitrea

Peniagone vitrea is a species of deep-sea swimming sea cucumber in the family Elpidiidae. It is a detritivore and is found in the northern Pacific Ocean at abyssal depths. It was first described by the Swedish zoologist Hjalmar Théel in 1879, being one of the many deep sea animals discovered during the Challenger expedition of 1872–1876.


Planiscutellum is a genus of trilobites in the order Corynexochida family Styginidae. These trilobites were nektobenthic detritivore. They lived in the Silurian period in the upper Ludlow epoch, from 422.9 ± 1.5 to 418.7 ± 2.8 million years ago.

Salarias fasciatus

Salarias fasciatus (jewelled blenny) is a popular marine aquarium fish species in Australasia. Despite being also known as the lawnmower blenny due to its propensity to consume algae growth from rocks and glass, it is principally a detritivore, with plant material making up only 15% of its diet. This species reaches a length of 14 centimetres (5.5 in) TL. The lawnmower blenny is generally regarded as compatible with most other marine fish species and as a group with other lawnmower blennies.

The lawnmower blenny blends in with its surroundings, changing color to hide itself from predators. It stays mostly on the ocean or aquarium floor or on any rock or corals.


Saprophages are organisms that obtain nutrients by consuming decomposing dead plant or animal biomass. They are distinguished from detritivores in that saprophages are sessile consumers while detritivore are mobile. Typical saprophagic animals include sedentary polychaetes such as amphitrites (Amphitritinae, worms of the family Terebellidae) and other terebellids.

The eating of wood, whether live or dead, is known as xylophagy. Τhe activity of animals feeding only on dead wood is called sapro-xylophagy and those animals, sapro-xylophagous.

Saprotrophic nutrition

Saprotrophic nutrition or lysotrophic nutrition is a process of chemoheterotrophic extracellular digestion involved in the processing of decayed (dead or waste) organic matter. It occurs in saprotrophs, and is most often associated with fungi (for example Mucor) and soil bacteria. Saprotrophic microscopic fungi are sometimes called saprobes; saprotrophic plants or bacterial flora are called saprophytes (sapro- + -phyte, "rotten material" + "plant"), though it is now believed that all plants previously thought to be saprotrophic are in fact parasites of microscopic fungi or other plants. The process is most often facilitated through the active transport of such materials through endocytosis within the internal mycelium and its constituent hyphae.Various word roots relating to decayed matter (detritus, sapro-), eating and nutrition (-vore, -phage), and plants or life forms (-phyte, -obe) produce various terms, such as detritivore, detritophage, saprotroph, saprophyte, saprophage, and saprobe; their meanings overlap, although technical distinctions (based on physiologic mechanisms) narrow the senses. For example, usage distinctions can be made based on macroscopic swallowing of detritus (as an earthworm does) versus microscopic lysis of detritus (as a mushroom does).

A facultative saprophyte appears on stressed or dying plants and may combine with the live pathogens..


Selenopeltis (/sɛliːnoʊpɛltɪs/) is an extinct genus of odontopleurid trilobites in the family Odontopleuridae.

Species in the genus Selenopeltis can reach a length of 115–160 millimetres (4.5–6.3 in) and a width of 115–130 millimetres (4.5–5.1 in). These trilobites show long pleural spines and were a low-level epifaunal detritivore. They lived in the Ordovician period, from the Lower Arenig stage age until the Ashgillian age (478.6-443.7 million years ago).


Terataspis grandis is a comparatively huge, 60 centimetre long lichid trilobite from the Early Devonian, about 397 million years ago. It lived in a shallow sea in what is now New York State and Ontario. No whole specimens have been found, only disarticulated fragments of its exoskeleton, but enough fragments have been found to allow researchers to form reconstructions of the whole animal.

T. grandis, like many other trilobites, was presumed to have been a detritivore that was also an opportunistic predator, preying on small burrowing animals, such as molluscs, worms, or arthropods.

Theliderma sparsa

Theliderma sparsa, the Appalachian monkey-face pearly mussel or Appalachian monkeyface, is a species of freshwater mussel, an aquatic bivalve mollusk in the family Unionidae, the river mussels.

This species is endemic to western Virginia and eastern Tennessee in the Appalachia region, in the Southeastern United States.

It is critically endangered due to pollution of the rivers in which it lives. Being a detritivore, the mussel absorbs the pollutants which contaminate the river as it feeds.


The Ulidiidae (formerly Otitidae) or picture-winged flies are a large and diverse cosmopolitan family of flies (Diptera), and as in related families, most species are herbivorous or detritivore. They are often known as picture-winged flies, along with members of other families in the superfamily Tephritoidea that have patterns of bands or spots on the wings. Some species share with the Tephritidae an unusual elongated posteroapical projection of the anal cell in the wing, but can be differentiated by the smoothly curving subcostal vein. Two species, Tetanops myopaeformis and Euxesta stigmatias, are agricultural pests.

Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components


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