Scavengers serve one of the most important functions in nature. They’re the world’s cleanup crew, removing rotting animals and plants and preventing them from spreading disease. They also help to recycle nutrients and keep the environment healthy. In this article we’re going to give you 17 examples of scavengers along with some pictures and interesting facts about each one.
What are scavengers?
A scavenger is any animal that eats meat or plants that are already dead. Some species are only scavengers, meaning they don’t kill their own food. Other species are opportunists who scavenge when they have the chance. In fact, almost all predators are also scavengers, since it’s always easier to eat an animal that’s already dead than it is to try and kill one yourself.
Vultures are infamous for being scavengers, and the reason they are first on a list of examples of scavengers. They’re some of the only animals in the world that are eat carrion exclusively, and they have impressive adaptations to make that possible. They have unique, hardened, barbed tongues that allow them to pick bones clean, and they have remarkably strong stomach acid that kills bacteria and parasites.
Vultures live all over the world but African vultures may be the most famous. Hardly any nature show set in Africa is complete without shots of crowds of vultures gathering around a lion kill.
Coyotes, which live throughout all of North America, are some of the continent’s most important scavengers. Like most scavengers, they aren’t only scavengers, they hunt for their own food as well. Still, they’re opportunists who never turn down a free meal.
Coyotes are infamous for killing pets, but they can also be spotted hanging around wolf kills, waiting for their chance to steal a meal. They’ll also happily raid your trash if they get they chance.
3. Striped Hyena
The spotted hyena is the most famous hyena species, and most people assume that it’s a scavenger. That’s actually not true. Spotted hyenas rarely scavenge their food, and in fact they kill most of their own food. Ironically, while people assume that hyenas always try to steal food from lions, it’s really lions that are far more likely to scavenge food killed by spotted hyenas.
The striped hyena, though, is a different story. These hyenas are smaller and rarer, and they’re truly scavengers. They rarely hunt for their own food and most of the meat they eat is scavenged.
Jackals are the African and Eurasian answer to the coyote. They’re similar in pretty much every way, mid-sized canines that live in packs and are highly opportunistic eaters. Like coyotes, they’re the top predator in some places, while in others they survive mainly by scavenging from other predators.
African jackals typically scavenge more than other jackals, because they’re surrounded by lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas. In effect, for these jackals, it’s probably more efficient to scavenge meat than it is to hunt for themselves.
5. Bottle flies
Also called blow flies, these are the most infamous flies in the world. That’s because their larvae, or maggots, are the maggots that are most commonly found in meat and animal carcasses. In fact, when carrion or dung is infested with maggots, almost all of the maggots are usually blowfly larvae.
This makes them one of the most important examples of scavengers in the world. Their maggots are often responsible for removing carrion before it can spread disease throughout an environment. In fact, their larvae have been used to clean wounds in living humans and animals with shocking success. They only eat dead flesh, not living flesh, so they can be very effective in cleaning up a wound and speeding the healing process.
Piranha are a misunderstood fish. They rarely attack living animals, especially animals that are bigger than they are. They’ll happily scavenge the bodies of dead animals that fall in the water with them. Much like sharks, piranha can go into a feeding frenzy when a large carcass is available.
Locals know that piranha are actually delicious, and because of their voracious appetites, they can be caught quite easily as long as you got some fish to bait your hook with.
Crabs are the ocean’s cleanup crew. Virtually all crabs are scavengers, even if some species eat other foods as well. The deep ocean floor is covered with crabs that clean up the detritus which sinks down to the bottom. Crabs living in shallow water and along the beach will clean up the carcass of anything that dies there.
And yes, this includes all crabs. Even those delicious Alaskan king crabs are examples of scavengers.
Ravens (and crows) often occupy the same ecological niche as vultures. In fact, there aren’t very many places where you’ll find both ravens and vultures living together. Unlike vultures, ravens have a broad diet and aren’t limited to carrion, but they’re definitely drawn to it. So much so that northern European cultures developed extensive mythologies around ravens as symbols of death.
Ravens are also among the smartest animals in the world, and in ancient and medieval times they were said to follow armies into battle because they knew that, one the battle was over, there would be lots of food available for them.
All eagles, even the noble bald eagle, are scavengers. They hunt for themselves, too, but they won’t turn away from a free meal. These massive, powerful birds can easily drive other scavengers like ravens and coyotes away from a carcass.
In North America, eagles often gather around wolf kills. Bald eagles sometimes scavenge the fish that bears leave behind, since bears typically only eat the skin and eggs of the fish they catch.
Wolves are fearsome predators, but if they find an animal that’s already dead, they’re happy to eat it. Sometimes they find animals that have died of natural causes, other times they find animals killed by mountain lions or coyotes and steal their kill.
Either way, wolves scavenge much more often than people realize. It takes a lot less energy to eat an animal that’s already dead than it does to find and kill your own food, so any time wolves can scavenge a carcass, they will.
Aside from polar bears, bears almost never hunt and kill their own food. In fact, most bears don’t eat nearly as much meat as people think. When they do, it’s almost always scavenged. Bears are usually bigger and stronger than any other predator around, which makes it easy to steal kills.
This is especially common in North America, where bears are notorious for chasing wolf packs off of their kills. There’s only one place where bears have to compete with a predator that’s strong enough not to be scared of them, and that’s in far eastern Russia where the Siberian Tigers live. Siberian Tigers have been known to hunt and kill bears for food.
While ants like do sugar, they also like meat. Ants are common scavengers, but most of what they scavenge is small. It’s not at all uncommon to see dead frogs, lizards, and insects covered in ants. When it comes to smaller creatures like these, ants may be the most common scavengers.
That’s because ants are often the first to find these carcasses, and also because they’re so small other scavengers simply aren’t all that interested.
Scarab beetles are almost always depicted as voracious scavengers, but actually, while there are many beetles that scavenge, scarab beetles rarely eat carrion. The sacred scarab beetle in Egypt, the most famous of the scarabs, is actually a dung beetle.
Still, many beetles are scavengers. In fact, there’s a whole family of beetles called carrion beetles. These beetles colonize carcasses, and lay their eggs in them. Both the adults and the larvae feed on the carrion.
Almost all millipedes are scavengers, but generally they scavenge dead and decaying plant material, rather than animal flesh. This is why most millipedes are found in places like the leaf litter on the forest floor. You may even find some in your compost pile.
When dead and decaying plants are unavailable, millipedes will begin attacking living plants, making them a bit of a nuisance.
Like all predators, sharks will happily scavenge when they get the chance. Some of the most notable examples of scavengers are sharks when whales die from natural causes. Whale carcasses float, and they present not only an easy meal for sharks, but an incredibly rich and nutritious one.
Sharks will gather in huge numbers around whale carcasses to feast, but there’s so much food even the sharks can’t eat it all. Sharks of all species, even Great Whites, will be drawn to the dead whale to feed.
Lobsters are scavengers much like their close cousins, crabs. They don’t usually scavenge as much as crabs do, but they still form an important part of the ocean’s cleanup crew. They eat decaying fish as well as decaying plant matter found in the ocean.
Lobsters and crabs are fine dining now, but their status as scavengers as well as they bug-like appearance meant that, for a long time, they were considered peasant food.
Slugs eat decaying plant material, and some species even eat decaying animals. Most slugs need to live in moist, humid environments, where decaying material is easy to come by. You’ll often find them in old, dead wood and piles of rotting vegetation on the forest floor.