What are the decomposers and what their characteristics are

The decomposers are heterotroph organisms that feed on dead organisms or their remains. There are decomposers that are bacteria, fungi, worms and insects. Decomposition is fundamental in nature, as it allows dead or decomposing organic matter to become nutrients and essential elements for life. The decomposers are responsible for carrying out this process, playing a crucial role in the nutrient cycle in ecosystems.

If you are interested in learning about these interesting organisms and their indispensable function in nature, we invite you to read this BIOenciclopedia article, in which we will see what the decomposers are, their types and examples of them, and more details such as the ecological importance they have.

What are the decomposers and what their characteristics are

Decomposers are heterotroph organisms, i.e. they cannot produce their own food from inorganic substances such as water and carbon dioxide, but depend on organic matter developed by other living beings. However, unlike consumers, who feed on living organisms or their parts, decomposers feed on dead organisms or their remains.

These living beings are responsible for breaking the complex organic molecules that form the tissues of living beings, such as proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, in simpler molecules or in their inorganic components, such as water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus. These substances can be used by primary producers, such as plants and algae, to perform photosynthesis and synthesize new organic matter.

After knowing exactly what they are and their basic function, we mention some important characteristics about these living beings:

  • Decomposers are difficult to represent in trophic chains because they do not occupy a fixed position, but act on all trophic levels by feeding on the decomposing organic matter that comes from them. Therefore, if you would like to represent your role in the flow of matter and energy in an ecosystem, you would have to draw an arrow from every link of a trophic chain to the decomposers. On the other hand, due to its ubiquity, the decomposers can be represented as the last link of the trophic chain and in turn as the first, as they are in charge of recycling organic matter.
  • As for their size, these organisms can be microscopic or macroscopic. Microscopics include mainly bacteria and fungi that live in soil or water and perform most of the decomposition process. Macroscopics are invertebrate animals that feed on detritus (organic reels) or corpses that facilitate the work of microorganisms by fragmenting organic matter into smaller pieces.
  • Often, the term decomposers is used as synonymous with scatters, but it is not exactly the same. The scatters are animals, usually of considerable size, that feed by ingesting dead animals and plants, helping to carry out the recycling of organic matter in ecosystems. Examples of scatters who come to perform this function are the lioned vulture or hyena. While decomposers, although they feed on organic matter, both animal and vegetable, dead, also tend to live in it and are small or even microscopic.

Types of decomposers

  • Detritívoros or detritophages: they are those who feed on detritus, that is, of plant remains (dry sheets, fallen fruits, dead stems) or animals (exoskeletons, feathers, hairs) that accumulate on the ground or at the bottom of the water. Examples of detritívoros are bacteria, fungi, earthworms, centipedes, piglets and some crustaceans.
  • Sapróphytes: these are decomposers that feed specifically on decomposing plant organic matter. They are very common in the soil, where they form the humus that enrichs the soil back in nutrients.
  • Co-opphages: in this case we are talking about organisms that feed on the stools or excrement of other animals. These contain organic matter which was not completely digested by the organism that produced them and that can be exploited by co-phases. Examples of co-opphages are flies, cockroaches and ball beetles.

Examples of decomposers


Bacteria are one of the most important decomposers in the wild. They are responsible for the decomposition of organic matter in soil and water. They also play an important role in the decomposition of organic matter in the digestive tract of animals and humans. More information about the Mona Kingdom, to which the bacteria belong, can be seen in this link.


Mushrooms have a leading role in the decomposition of wood and other plant materials. They are able to degrade cellulose and lignin, which are majority components of wood and other plant materials. Here you can read about the Fungi Kingdom: features and classification and here about the Types and classification of mushrooms.


The worms are common decomposers on the ground. Some types of worms, such as earthworms, are particularly important in the breakdown of organic matter in the soil. In this other post you can read about The worms and get to know these animals better.


In this case, we refer mainly to the larval stages of insects. These are animals that often fulfill the function of decomposers of organic matter, both animal and vegetable, living in soils, organic matter in decomposing and feces. There are also examples of decomposing insects in their adult stage, such as many species of beetles.

Importance of decomposers

As we have previously commented, the function of decomposing organisms is to transform dead organic matter into substances that producing organisms, such as plants, can take advantage of. In this way, the decomposers contribute to the cycle of matter and energy in ecosystems, closing the trophic chain, which implies that they are an indispensable link the same.

Among the main functions carried out by these bodies, the following are:

  • They are responsible for removing organic matter in the breakdown of ecosystems, contributing to the reduction of infectious agents in them and thus promoting a healthier environment for the rest of the organisms.
  • They are the main ones responsible for recycling nutrients in ecosystems, allowing the trophic chain to remain in balance and not collapsing due to the accumulation of matter not usable by producers. They are the organisms that recharge the reserves of inorganic nutrients from the environment, which allows the growth and maintenance of producing organisms.
  • In their process as decomposers, they can carry out the biodegradation of contaminants present in soils and water, a process known as bioremediation, which is increasingly being sought to understand in greater depth in order to be exploited by human beings in the decontamination of ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic. In this link you can learn more about Bioremediation: what is, types and examples.


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