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Detritivores Are Nature's Recycling Workhorses

We have heard of carnivores that eat meat and herbivores that eat plants, but what is a detritivore? Detritivores are animals that eat dead or decaying animals and plants.

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Decomposition and decay are nature’s way of recycling. It is the process of breaking down dead plants or animals into nutrients and minerals that can feed the living.

Decomposition and decay do not happen all at once. Decomposers and detritivores such as bacteria, fungi and insects help the process get into motion.

If we didn’t have decomposition and detritivores, we would be swimming in fallen leaves and walking over dead animals. Plus we would see a decline in new growth because all the nutrients would be trapped in the dead plants and animals.

Let’s learn a little more about a few hard-working detritivores and give them three cheers: Hip, hip hooray!


Photo via Shutterstock

It is easy to find these friendly detritivores under our feet. Roll a log, flip a rock or simply dig a hole in the ground and you will find a wiggly earthworm.

They eat decaying plant and animal matter found in the soil. Once it passes through the worm, it exits as waste. The waste is full of healthy nutrients and bacteria that enter back into the soil. Worms also improve the aeration of the soil, mixing in oxygen and allowing water to reach all the roots of the plants above.


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When thinking of a long bug with lots and lots of legs, most people think of a centipede. However, millipedes also fit that description! Millipedes are much slower than centipedes and sometime roll into a spiral ball when scared.

They eat decaying plant matter, including leaves. You won’t find a millipede bite mark in a leaf. They first moisturize their food with their own special juices and then scrape it with their jaws. Many types of millipedes are known to eat their own waste pellets to get extra nutrition from the fungus growing inside the pellets.


Photo by Suzy Lyttle

Slugs are like snails without a shell. They are slow moving and sometimes leave a glittering trail of slime behind them. They have two sets of antenna: one set for seeing light and the other for feeling and smelling.

Slugs tend to get a bad reputation in gardens, but really they have no interest in healthy, living plants. Slugs eat dead plants and mushrooms. In return, they actually provide gardens with a boost of nutrients after eating all the decaying matter.

Becoming a Detritivore

We may not want to eat dead things, but we can help nature recycle! Composting is a great way to get your own nutrient-packed soil to add to your yard and garden. Get a worm bin to compost your fruit and vegetable waste. Try composting yard waste by using a wire mesh bin for grass clippings.

Need more ideas? Come to Plum Creek Nature Center to check out the Compost Trail. The trail includes examples of many types of bins and their uses and how easy they are to maintain.


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