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In this lesson, we will investigate detritivores. These organisms play a crucial role in all ecosystems by utilizing their unique diet to clean up decaying organic matter. We will see examples of them and learn of the benefits they provide to the world.

What Are Detritivores?

Detritivores are heterotrophs that obtain their nutrition by feeding on detritus. Heterotrophs are organisms that do not produce their own food, but must obtain it from the environment.

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The detritus they consume includes decomposing plant and animal parts, as well as fecal matter. These organisms play an important role in all ecosystems by getting rid of decaying organic matter left behind by other organisms. In food webs, detritivores commonly play the role of decomposers.


There are many examples of detritivores; some of them include millipedes, dung beetles, earthworms, fiddler crabs and sea cucumbers.Earthworms eat decaying plant and animal matter in the soil. The material, including some soil, enters the mouth, passes through the worm’s digestive system and exits the anus.

The decaying matter is what the earthworms process to obtain nutrients and energy. By breaking down this matter and burrowing through the soil, the earthworms improve the composition and aeration of the soil. This makes them a very crucial part of their ecosystem.

This image depicts an earthworm.

They are classic examples of detritivores because they consume organic material from the soil.

Image of an earthworm.

Millipedes are slow-moving detritivores. Most millipedes eat decaying leaves and other dead plant matter.

They eat by moisturizing the food with secretions that they produce, and then they scrape it in with their jaws. However, they can also be minor garden pests, especially in greenhouses, where they can cause severe damage to emergent seedlings.

These millipedes are searching the soil for decaying organic matter to eat.

Image of millipedes in the soil.

Dung beetles are another example of detritivores. They are found in all ecosystems and on all continents except Antarctica. They survive by feeding on the feces of other organisms. By burying and consuming dung they play an important role in the nutrient cycle of their environment. They also protect livestock that would normally be affected by the flies attracted to the feces in the pastures.

Fiddler crabs are semi-terrestrial marine crabs that are also detritivores. They spend their days using their claws to pick up sand and bring it into their mouths. Then they sift through the sand and sediment as they feed on decaying organic material that has been left behind.Sea cucumbers are examples of marine detritivores.

They can be found on the sea floor where they sift through the sand and feed on decaying organic material that has settled on the bottom. The organic material is often the remains of dead organisms and feces from various species of marine life.

Sea cucumbers like this one scour the ocean floor in search of organic material to consume.
Image of a sea cucumber.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. As you can see, detritivores are crucial parts of all ecosystems.

They serve as the world’s clean-up crew. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were no organisms removing dead animals, plants and waste? Common examples of detritivores include earthworms, millipedes, dung beetles, fiddler crabs and sea cucumbers. Our examples show us that detritivores can be found in all environments and hold an important place in the food web as decomposers.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Explain what detritivores are and their role in the food web
  • Describe examples of detritivores

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