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What Are Detritivores?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

Detritivores are organisms that survive by consuming decaying organic material, known as detritus. They are typically animals, although some fungi are sometimes classed as detritivores. These organisms play a vital role in a variety of different ecosystems, helping to break down dead matter and release the nutrients stored within it for use my other organims.

In ecology, the terms "detritivore" and "decomposer" are often used interchangeably. These two types of organism do play similar roles in the ecosystem, but they are not exactly identical. Decomposers, rather than ingesting dead organic matter as detritivores do, absorb nutrients on a molecular scale. Similarly, although scavengers play a similar role and some ecologists may include the two types of organism in a discussion for the sake of simplicity, scavengers and detritivores operate on a different scale, with scavengers generally being larger organisms which consume larger amounts of organic matter. A detritivore might feed on the droppings of scavengers or on the parts of carcasses left behind.

Earthworms are detritivores.
Earthworms are detritivores.

The role of this type of organism in the nutrient cycle is to consume dead organic material such as carcasses, fallen leaves, dead plants, animal droppings, and shed skins. Having consumed the material, the organism then excretes or egests waste. This waste contains nutrients which are thus returned to the soil, facilitating new plant growth, or made easier for other organisms to consume. By breaking down dead matter into smaller pieces, detritivores speed up the process of decomposition. The greater surface area of processed waste compared to a dead organism makes it easier for decomposers such as bacteria and fungi to complete the nutrient cycle, breaking up these last remains at a molecular level.

Detritivores make up a significant part of most ecosystems. In many biomes, detritivores make up half of the biomass, excluding plants and bacteria. Common species of detritivore include earthworms, slugs and many species of insect such as flies. Marine detritivores include crabs, sea stars and many species of fish and worm.

One of the most ubiquitous terrestrial species of detritivore is Armadillidium vulgare, also known as the woodlouse or pillbug. This small animal is actually a crustacean of the Isopod order, not an insect. Pillbugs typically consume dead vegetable matter such as fallen leaves or refuse. When pillbugs overpopulate, however, they will sometimes feed on living plants, including cultivated plants, which leads humans to regard them as pests. Although primarily detritivores, pillbugs, like many organisms, can change their behavior as a response to changing circumstances.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are detritivores and how do they contribute to the ecosystem?

Detritivores are organisms that feed on dead organic matter, such as fallen leaves, dead animals, and feces. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem by breaking down this matter into simpler substances, which can then be recycled into the soil, enriching it and supporting plant growth. This process also helps to cycle nutrients and energy through the ecosystem, maintaining ecological balance.

Can you give examples of common detritivores we might encounter?

Common detritivores include earthworms, which are often found in soil, breaking down plant material. In forests, you might encounter woodlice and certain beetle species that consume decaying wood. In aquatic environments, detritivores like shrimp and catfish are known for feeding on organic material at the bottom of bodies of water. These creatures are integral to their respective habitats for nutrient cycling.

How do detritivores differ from decomposers?

Detritivores and decomposers both break down dead organic material, but they do so in different ways. Detritivores physically ingest and digest detritus, often excreting nutrient-rich waste. Decomposers, such as bacteria and fungi, chemically break down matter through processes like fermentation and putrefaction, directly converting it into simpler substances without ingestion.

What is the significance of detritivores in waste management?

Detritivores are significant in waste management as they naturally recycle organic waste. For instance, earthworms are used in vermicomposting to convert kitchen scraps and yard waste into nutrient-rich compost. This not only reduces landfill waste but also produces a natural fertilizer that can enhance soil health, demonstrating a practical application of detritivores in sustainable practices.

Are detritivores found in all ecosystems?

Detritivores are indeed found in nearly all ecosystems, from the deepest oceans to the highest mountains. Their presence is essential for the decomposition of organic matter and nutrient cycling. Each ecosystem has specialized detritivores adapted to the available resources and environmental conditions, ensuring that organic matter is efficiently processed no matter the location.

How do detritivores affect the food chain?

Detritivores occupy a critical niche in the food chain by converting dead organic matter into forms that can be utilized by other organisms. They often serve as a food source for higher trophic levels, such as predators and omnivores. By facilitating decomposition and nutrient release, detritivores indirectly support the primary producers at the base of the food chain, thus sustaining the entire ecosystem.

Discussion Comments


@strawCake - I remember being really interested in earthworms and caterpillars when I was younger. For some reason I always thought they were kind of similar, but biologically it sounds like they aren't.

I've actually never given too much thought to the scavengers and decomposers of the natural world. Most people seem to find scavengers gross, but the world wouldn't continue on without them!


When I was a kid I used to go out after a rainstorm and look at all the earthworms. I thought they were just so fascinating. However, I never got around to finding out what their actual function in the world was.

I think it's so interesting that earthworms are detrivores. I guess the name earthworm really make sense! They basically digest dead matter and return the nutrients to the earth.


For those that enjoy looking after marine aquariums adding detritivores like cerith snails to your tank can really improve the quality of life for your fish and the plants in it.

A lot of people find that they have trouble dealing with the fecal matter in aquariums and in essence, adding something like cerith snails to your tank can be an easy way to help clean things up.

As the process of having a detritivore in your tank is painless and things go as nature intended, why not do it?

While thinks like cerith snails aren't beautiful, they definitely serve an important function that shouldn't be overlooked.


Detritivores are fascinating and it always amazes me at how our world manages to look out for itself. If your kids like science then showing them what detritivores do for the environment can really be a great project.

All you need is a small aquarium and some pillbugs or earthworms for your experiment. Just fill the aquarium half full with soil and add in a few leaves and your bugs of choice.

The bugs will take care of the leaves when they start to decompose. It's a very simple thing for kids to watch but if they are anything like my kids, having "pets" to study can be quite interesting.

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    • Earthworms are detritivores.
      By: Dusty Cline
      Earthworms are detritivores.