[ dih-trahy-tuh-vawr, -vohr ]
/ dɪˈtraɪ təˌvɔr, -ˌvoʊr /
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noun Ecology.
an organism that uses organic waste as a food source, as certain insects.


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Origin of detritivore

First recorded in 1975–80; detrit(us) + -i- + -vore

OTHER WORDS FROM detritivore

det·ri·tiv·or·ous [de-truh-tiv-er-uhs], /ˌdɛ trəˈtɪv ər əs/, de·triv·or·ous [dih-triv-er-uhs], /dɪˈtrɪv ər əs/, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is a detritivore?

A detritivore is an organism that eats dead or decaying plants or animals as food. Detritivores include microorganisms such as bacteria and larger organisms such as fungi, insects, worms, and some crustaceans.

Detritivore is a combination of the word detritus and the suffix -vore. Detritus means waste or debris—in this case, dead plants and animals. The suffix -vore means “one that eats,” as seen in herbivore (plant eater) and carnivore (meat eater). So a detritivore eats dead plants and animals. Animals classified as scavengers also eat dead matter, but on a larger scale.

Detritivores are an essential part of the food chain because they help to break down dead plant or animal matter. This returns essential nutrients to the ecosystem and helps to prevent a buildup of dead or rotting material that could spread disease and have other negative consequences.

Why are detritivores important in biology?

Without even knowing the science behind it, you would probably guess that it would be bad (and gross) if nothing happened to dead plants and animals and they just sat there and rotted. Good thing that nature comes with its own cleanup crew: detritivores. Detritivore is a relatively new term that has been used in life sciences since at least the 1960s to refer to a wide variety of not-particularly-cute organisms, including worms, crabs, termites, beetles, cockroaches, snails, slugs, and millipedes.

Although there is a wide range of detritivores that look and act very differently, they all have something in common: their appetite for dead or decaying plant and animal matter. It’s a dirty job, but an important one. Rotting matter is often filled with disease-causing organisms that can be harmful to animals, but it still has important nutrients inside it that plants and fungi could absorb if they were broken down first. That’s where detritivores come in, breaking down flesh and dead plants into nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, that plants and other organisms need.

Detritivores aren’t the only organisms that break down dead matter. They belong to a class of organisms called decomposers. But decomposers work in different ways, and not all decomposers are detritivores. Scavengers like vultures and sharks also eat dead stuff, but they’re much bigger, so they consume much more at a time. We may take it for granted that the dead stuff on the forest or ocean floor eventually decays and disappears, but it doesn’t eat itself—detritivores are on the job, feasting right under our feet.

Did you know ... ?

Detritivores are responsible for a huge percentage of the world’s decomposition and can be found throughout the planet. Some invasive detritivores have even managed to survive and thrive on an island of Antarctica!

What are real-life examples of detritivores?

This video shows footage of sea stars (starfish), which are aquatic detritivores, feeding on a dead fish.

What other words are related to detritivore?

Quiz yourself!

Based on its diet, which of the following creatures is a detritivore?

A. a bear that eats garbage from trash cans
B. a jackal that sometimes eats animals killed by other predators
C. a spider that eats flies and smaller spiders
D. a slug that eats dead leaves and dead worms

Scientific definitions for detritivore

[ dĭ-trītə-vôr′ ]

An organism that feeds on and breaks down dead plant or animal matter, returning essential nutrients to the ecosystem. Detritivores include microorganisms such as bacteria and protists as well as larger organisms such as fungi, insects, worms, and isopod crustaceans. In a food chain, detritivores are primary consumers. Compare carnivore herbivore.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.