With so many different animals worldwide, scientists have found different ways to categorize them. One way is through how they obtain their nutrients. Some consume decaying matter, while others eat plants or other animals. Detritivores are a category of decomposers that get their nutrients in a very specific way. In this article we’ll look at some examples of detritivores and explore some of the different species in this category.
The varied types of detritivores show just how important they are to the ecosystems on our planet.
We’re about to find out more, but first…
What is a detritivore?
Detritivores are animals that get nutrition from eating organic matter consisting of dead plants and animal materials or feces. On land, most detritivores are invertebrate insects. In marine environments, they are mostly crustaceans or echinoderms living on the ocean floor and sometimes called “bottom feeders.”
Detritivores are a type of decomposer, even though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. True decomposers such as bacteria or fungi absorb nutrients through their bodies. In contrast, detritivores eat nutrients through their mouths.
Both detritivores and decomposers contribute significantly to their ecosystems by being responsible for the breakdown of dead and decaying material. Meaning they help prevent diseases from spreading and help cycle nutrients into the earth.
14 examples of detritivores
Here is a list of 14 animals that you might not have known were considered detritivores. Let’s take a look at their pictures and learn more about each of them.
Scientific family: Diplopoda
There are thousands of millipede species and you can find them on every continent except Antarctica. They prefer to burrow into moist, warm soil. They eat any material naturally existing in their underground habitat, including decayed leaves and damp wood pieces.
Despite their names, they don’t have 1,000 feet but only have an average of 100 legs. Some have up to 750 legs. The millipede’s entire body houses its heart, with the head holding the aorta.
Scientific family: Oniscidea
Woodlice enjoy moist environments where they can scavenge for decaying plant matter, leaves, and fruits that have fallen from trees. You can find this less than an inch animal in most forests and jungles around the world. You may know these invertebrates as pill-bugs or rolly pollies.
Despite looking like an insect, they are crustaceans since they have 14 body parts and a hard outer shell. The parts allow them to protect themselves by curling into a ball and exposing just the outer shell. However, young woodlice can take months to fully develop, so adults often stay close after they hatch to protect them.
3. Dung Beetles
Scientific family: Scarabaeidae or Geotrupidae
As their name suggests, dung beetles live a life interacting with dung or feces. They both bury into and feed on animal waste, helping almost every ecosystem worldwide.
These beetles can push objects much larger than themselves. They can roll up balls of dung to push them back to their home as food. Some dung beetles will dig into the dung, burying parts into the ground as nutrients for the soil. And other dung beetles actually lay eggs on dung piles.
4. Cushion Stars
Scientific name: Culcita novaeguineae
Cushion stars are a species of starfish that are detritivores since they eat decomposed organic matter. However, they will also sometimes eat other sedentary animals, such as corals. To feed, they will invert their stomachs through their mouth and suck any available nutrients, digesting them right in the open. Another interesting feature all starfish share is that they have two stomachs to help them digest.
These starfish get their name from their puffy, cushion-like appearance. They have short arms and a rough surface with spines. Although most are brown, green, pale orange, or cream, some cushion stars are bright in color.
5. Sea Cucumbers
Scientific family: Holothuroidea
Although sea cucumbers don’t have brains, they can feed themselves using their tubular feet. They wipe their tentacle-like feet over the seafloor to pick up food particles. Almost all species are detritivores, eating decaying organic matter, algae, and bacteria.
Be careful, though, if you handle one! Most species can release a toxic substance that can permanently blind humans.
6. Fiddler Crabs
Scientific name: Uca rapax
Fiddler crabs eat mostly fungus, bacteria, algae, and dead or decaying plant and animal matter. They use their claws to scrape edible particles into their mouths and can regrow their claws if they lose any.
These crabs have an interesting mating ritual that gives them their names. Males will line up beside the burrows they dug and move their claws back and forth in a fiddling-like motion. As females walk by, the male will tap the ground with his claw if he is attracted. If she accepts his advances, she will enter the burrow where they mate.
7. Squat Lobsters
Scientific name: Munida gregaria
Squat lobsters, sometimes called lobster krill, are not true lobsters but more similar to hermit crabs. These small, colorful animals are around one to four inches in length and live in large populations. They get their names because of their long arms with lobster-like claws that can grow over several times their length.
Squat lobsters live on the deep seafloor, where they scoop up sandy or muddy deposits to find edible bits with their mouths. They mostly eat sediment, organic matter, algae, and plankton.
8. Blowfly Larvae
Scientific family: Calliphoridae
While blowflies will eat a variety of things, their larvae mostly get their nutrients from decaying flesh. An adult blowfly will smell out rotting flesh and lay its eggs on dead animal carcasses. Blowfly eggs will take between 24 and 45 hours to hatch. The larvae then eat the decaying flesh or animal dung and go through multiple stages of growth before they crawl away to transform into their adult forms.
9. Garden Snails
Scientific name: Cornu aspersum, formerly Helix aspersa
Garden snails are terrestrial molluscs have a distinctive shell pattern of brown spiral stripes against a brown or cream shell. They are small, growing up to 1.3 inches. As the reputation of snails goes, they are very slow and adults move at a maximum speed of 0.029 miles per hour.
This species of land snail feeds on various plant matter you can typically find in a garden. Examples include fruit, vegetable crops, rose bushes, and flowers.
Scientific name: Isoptera
All termites are detritivores because they eat dead plants and materials. Their main diet is cellulose, which is the organic fiber naturally found in trees and plants. Termites have microorganisms in their stomachs that help them easily digest cellulose.
Termites are important to decomposition processes in grassland and forest ecosystems. You can find them mostly in warmer climate regions as they prefer warm coastal areas and moist lowlands. They can build mounds up to 19 feet tall! Termites are also considered pests since they will eat the dead wood used to build houses and other structures.
11. Common Earthworms
Scientific name: Lumbricus terrestris
Common earthworms, or night-crawlers, are worms that build vertical burrows deep in the ground. You can find them almost anywhere with the moist soil conditions they need to survive. They will typically emerge from their burrows only to find food, mainly consisting of manure, organic matter, and decomposed litter.
These worms contribute significantly to soil formation, nutrient cycles, and decomposition of matter. Their burrows churn the soil and create drainage channels in the ground. Their diets also add nutrients to the soil and prevent potential diseases from decaying matter from spreading.
12. Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
Scientific name: Gromphadorhina portentosa
The Madagascar hissing cockroach gets its name from the hissing sound it makes to intimidate, scare off predators, or attract mates. They are one of the largest cockroach species, growing up to 4 inches long. Despite their large size and loud hiss, they are harmless to humans.
You can find these cockroaches in rainforests, where they are an important part of recycling nutrients back into the ground. Their diets mainly consist of animal carcasses and decomposing plant material.
13. Water Springtail
Scientific name: Sminthurides aquaticus
The water springtail is a wingless arthropod that lives in habitats with decaying material, such as grass, moss, and deadwood. As their name suggests, they live on the surface of ponds and at the edges of streams. Water springtails are very small, ranging from 0.019 to 0.039 inches in length. Males are generally in the lower range and half the size of females.
These animals feed on pieces of deadwood and sometimes decaying animal matter, such as dead flies or earthworms. They are also mainly vegetarian and eat pollen, algae, and lichens.
14. Large Black Slug
Scientific name: Arion ater
Most slugs are detritivores, feeding on leaves, fruits, vegetables, and decaying plants. The large black slug is no exception. They are similar to snails, except they don’t have a shell. Slugs have a horny plate under their saddle as protection instead.
The large black slug is typically orange with a black head or intensely black all around. They can grow up to 5.9 inches in length. You can find them in most terrestrial habitats, including woodlands, hedgerows, and grasslands.