What are Detrivores?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Detrivores are certain animals that are an extremely important part of the food chain. There are numerous types, with the most being insects, fish, some crustaceans, and birds, reptiles or mammals that are primarily scavengers. Their role in the food chain is to eat dead organic material, but they usually have little role in killing the organic material. They are recyclers to a degree, consuming this material, but not completely breaking it down in their digestive systems.

Butterflies are sometimes detrivores.
Butterflies are sometimes detrivores.

For example, oceans, streams and lakes have fish (and sometimes crabs) that eat dead organic materials present on the floor of the water source. Such material can include already dead animals, fish scales, excretions from fish, and dead plant material. Detrivores typically consume these, helping to keep the aquatic environment cleaner and removing detritus.

Earthworms are detrivores.
Earthworms are detrivores.

Once detrivores have fed on this material, they’ve also left it vulnerable to decomposers, who break down detritus even further. Decomposers can include certain animals and fish, but are more likely to include various forms of bacteria and fungi. Decomposers can be said to be responsible for cleaning up and breaking down the end stage of decay, while detrivores take the role of first pass at the cleaning but still contribute to decay.

A yellow jacket, a type of detrivore.
A yellow jacket, a type of detrivore.

You’ll find a variety of these first stage cleaners in the insect world. Termites, for instance, eat wood (unfortunately some of it in our houses) that is no longer living. Woodlice also feed on dead plant matter, typically from trees. Wasps, yellow jackets and even butterflies can be found gathering on carcasses. Worms consume dead plant material and essentially work as wonderful composters.

A vulture is a type of detrivore, scavenging on animals that have already died.
A vulture is a type of detrivore, scavenging on animals that have already died.

Even in fish bowls and aquariums you may find detrivores, which may also be called bottom feeders by some. They serve a useful role in small aquariums because they help to keep detritus from gathering at the bottom of the tank. A few bird species are considered detrivores since they feed on dead animals alone. In particular, most vultures tend to scavenge only, rather than hunting.

There are animals that can sometimes scavenge, but may also hunt. Foxes, lions, hyenas and numerous other animals are opportunistic feeders. They won’t necessarily reject a dead animal as a good source of food, but they will also hunt for food when they can’t scavenge enough to get the necessary nutrients they need. In some respects, especially in advanced human cultures, humans are similar. Most of the food we consume is dead organic material; however, some human had to harvest it or slaughter it to make it available to us.

Decomposers like fungi are active during the end stage of decay, which is begun by detrivores.
Decomposers like fungi are active during the end stage of decay, which is begun by detrivores.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


It's interesting that detrivores play such an important role in our ecosystem, but they can also be serious pests. For example, it's probably a good thing for termites to eat rotting wood in the wild. But it's not so good when termites start snacking on your house, even though they're just doing what they're supposed to do naturally.

I also think it's neat you can use detrivores for other things, like helping you clean your fish tank or making fertilizer. I guess those kind of detrivores are kind of the opposite of termites!


@JessicaLynn - That is definitely a major distinction between a detritivore and other animals: detritivores eat decomposing matter, while carnivores and omnivores eat it fresh (although in the case of humans, we don't usually eat freshly killed animals, we normally consume meat that's been refrigerated first.)

Honestly, I find the whole idea of detritivores kind of gross. I know they're essential to our ecosystem and all, but the idea of eating rotting flesh is pretty disgusting. I'm also a little sad that butterflies are detritivores, because they're so pretty!


I think this article makes a good point about human consumption of food kind of fitting the detritivores definition. Most of us don't kill our own food, and consume dead animals that other people have killed.

However, I think there is a big difference between human eating habits and that of detritivores. While we do eat food that is already dead, we have to eat it while it's fresh. We don't just consume rotting meat, but from what I understand detritivores do! They must have a different kind of digestive system than we do, because most people would get sick from eating rotten meat.


I have never seen wasps and butterflies on dead animals, but I have seen them on fruits and vegetables. My dad has a large garden every year, and we always have plenty of watermelons, which seem to be a favorite of detrivores.

After we have scraped the ripe fruit out of the rind, we throw the rinds out in the yard. They attract butterflies like crazy! This gives me a good chance to take some pretty photos.

However, I have to be careful, because wasps also like rotting watermelon. They will sting if they feel threatened, so I keep my distance and use the zoom on my camera.


I use worms in my composting bin to help break down the material faster. I know this sounds kind of gross to some people, but there is a big difference in the quality of my compost when I use them.

I buy red worms to use for this, but if you have ever seen red wiggly worms in an old compost pile, these are the same things. They eat more than their body weight in food in a day.

This makes some of the best fertilizer you can find to put on your garden. There is also a difference in the quality and yield of my produce when I use compost that has been broken down by these worms.


@kylee07drg – The detritivores are what eat away big chunks of dead things. They actually help the decomposers by exposing additional parts of dead organisms that they can feed upon, so it isn't a question of detritivores vs. decomposers. They work together.

Decomposers kind of break up the food that detrivores will eat, and then detritivores eat and expose more food for decomposers. So, they help each other eat.

I always think of decomposers more as things that help a carcass rot, and I think of detritivores as things that make the rotten parts disappear. Hopefully this has helped you out somewhat.


When I understood the role of detritivores in the ocean, I realized how they could help keep my aquarium clean. Even though this is on a much smaller scale, the concept is still the same.

These bottom feeders really do clean up the waste and help keep the tank cleaner. I still have to clean it and scrub, but don't have to do it as often, and when I do, it doesn't take as long.

There is a place for everything in the balance of nature, and detrivores certainly play an important role in the balance of our environment.


@healthy4life – I have also seen the word spelled this way. In fact, that is the way that I was taught to spell and pronounce it by my science teacher.

She tried explaining detritivores to us, but I don't think she had a very good grasp on what they do. So, I'm still a little confused about the difference between detritivores and decomposers.

They both break down dead things, so I don't see how they are that different from each other. Can anyone help me out here? I will probably have an essay question regarding this on my test, and I'd like to be a little more informed.


I really never thought of the vultures I see eating road kill as being recyclers. I realize their job is important, but I always cringe when I see them circling in the air overhead or in the middle of the road.

We live next to some timber and I often see these scavengers flying around. The timber probably has dead animals that they like to eat on.

When I think about the balance of everything, I realize that detrivores have their place, even though it isn't always pleasant to think about.


We studied these in biology class not long ago. They are also called “detritivores,” though I don't know why anyone would throw those extra two letters into the name when they could just use the shortened version of the word.

When the teacher pointed out that you could put detrivores in your aquarium to help you keep it clean, I went out and got one for my fish tank. Anything that can keep me from emptying and scrubbing that thing so often is wonderful in my book.

These organisms really help keep the ocean clean. Without them, I imagine that dead fish and other creatures would really start piling up.

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