Death – It’s what’s for dinner! Turns out dead things fuel a big part of our world’s ecosystems. We pulled together some common creatures that primarily eat the dead, and all play their part in the (often grotesque) circle of life. These are the things that eat dead things.
Those Who Dare Eat the Dead
There are many species that have dead things included in their diets. These include scavenger animals such as Hyenas that will eat both the dead and the creatures they have hunted. There are also decomposers and detritivores (turns out decomposition is quite the raging party!). These are things (organisms) that break down dead or decaying things. Like scavengers, they play a key role in decomposition.
While the terms decomposer and detritivore are often interchangeably used, detritivores ingest and digest dead matter internally, while decomposers directly absorb nutrients through external chemical and biological processes. Decomposers include fungi, mushrooms and bacteria. Detritivores include worms, beetles, and even butterflies!
Scavengers, decomposers, and detritivores all break down dead plants and animals. They also break down the waste (poop!) of other organisms. This makes them very important to our ecosystems, because without them plants could not get essential nutrients and dead matter and waste would pile up (think of all that poop!).
Things That Eat Dead Things
A bee that creates honey out of rotten flesh? No, this is not a B level zombie exploitation film. This is the Vulture Bee.
The Vulture Bee (species Trigona necrophaga) produces a secretion that is very similar to honeybees, but this is not your typical sweet nectar. As the name suggests, the Vulture Bee eats the liquefying flesh of rotting animal carcasses. The bees, similar to maggots, usually enter the carcass through the eyes to harvest rotted flesh which it stores in a special stomach compartment. When the bee returns to its hive, the meat is then vomited and processed by a worker bee who breaks the meat down into an edible substance resembling honey. This substance is then placed into pot-like containers within the hive until it is time to feed the immature bees.
And get this: Even though this ‘honey’ is created from rotted flesh, it is decay-resistant!
Burying beetles are one of nature’s most efficient undertakers. Some are generalists, while others are attracted specifically to the carcasses of particular animals, such as snakes, birds, mammals, and fish. There are some 19 species in the genus Nicrophorus.
Burying beetles are nocturnal and they spend much of their lives underground. You’re most likely to find them in fields under small dead animals, such as moles or mice. The beetles bury the carrion by digging under it and lay their eggs in the body. When the larva hatch, they feed off the rotting corpse. Now that’s a beautiful depiction of the circle of life.
If the Burying Beetle is nature’s undertaker, then this flesh eating beetle is nature’s forensic scientist. If there is a dead body, these little round beetles are there for the party.
Dermestidae are a family of Coleoptera that are commonly referred to as skin beetles. There are approximately 500 to 700 species worldwide. They are scavengers that feed on dry animal and plant material, including skin, with some species being associated with decaying carcasses. They are the ultimate forensics helper and can aid in deciphering when a person has died. These beetles will find a dead body about a week after death and lay their eggs in the dead flesh.
They are also used in taxidermy and by natural history museums to clean animal skeletons. A colony of Dermestid Beetles can clean a deer skull in around three days. The process of using these critters to clean dead things for display was pioneered at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. The current workers are direct descendants from the original colony established in this museum in 1924!
This scavenging bird of prey is the poster child of things that eat dead things. It is even part of the sky burial rituals of Tibet.
There are two main groups of vultures: New World, which are found in North and South America, and Old World, which are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The most striking characteristic of many vultures are their bald head. They primarily eat dead animals, though they have been known to kill the wounded or sick. They are nature’s clean up crew and play a big role in removing dangerous bacteria from the environment that would otherwise infect other animals and humans in the area. Their stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, and allows them to safely digest any lingering infections with botulinum toxin, cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers.
New World vultures often vomit when threatened or approached, and will even vomit to lighten their stomach load to fly away. Even their urine is acidic, and New World vultures will urinate down their legs to kill bacteria that accumulate from walking through carcasses. Bonus: it also cools them down on hot days.
Nicknamed the Undertaker due to its appearance from behind, the Marabou Stork can often be found dining on carrion along with the more famous vultures. They will wait for the vultures to rip up the carcasses and steal scraps as they find them.
Similar to a vulture, it has a featherless head that has adapted to help it eat carrion without getting pieces of flesh and blood stuck to it. Unlike vultures, they are opportunistic eaters, and will eat small animals, feces, and human waste. They play a vital role along with the vultures in removing rotting and potentially hazardous carcasses from their environments.
Bones will last thousands of years given the right environmental conditions, but under water they will be consumed by the Osedax. Also known as the Zombie Worm, or Bone Worm, these creatures show up en masse to make quick and thorough work of any bones at the bottom of the ocean.
They were only discovered in 2002, and mainly eat whale bones. They lack a mouth and stomach, and use an acid to dissolve their way into the bone. This is produced by the root located at the front of the body, and the part of the worm that penetrates the bone. On the opposite end, there are feather-like appendages called palps that work as lungs to take in oxygen from the surrounding water. They rely on symbiotic species of bacteria that live in their bodies and aid in the digestion of bone proteins and lipids. These bacteria release (i.e. poop out) nutrients that the worms can then absorb for food.
Osedax evolved 100 million years ago with researchers discovering fossilized evidence of them burrowing into the bones of large marine dinosaurs.
Hagfish, like the other sea dwellers on this list, has remained the same for around 300 million years. It has no fins, smooth loose skin, and the only bone in its body is its skull (which is actually made of cartilage). It has a jawless mouth that is full of jagged teeth on two bony plates designed to devour its dinner. What does it eat? Anything that dies and ends up on the ocean floor.
Hagfish eat in a frenzied group spinning their way into the carcass and make quick work of their meals. They will even tie their own bodies into a knot to help them pull out chunks of flesh.
The best part? They create slime as a defense mechanism that instantly expands in water to choke anything that thinks it could have eaten it. And when we say slime, we really mean lots and lots of slime.
I was today years old when I learned that Butterflies eat dead things.
Okay, we admit, this one is a bit of a cheat because they also rely on other non-dead sources of nutrients. But did you know butterflies often feed on decaying animals, rotten fruits, blood, animal feces and urine? Flowers alone do not provide enough sodium for butterflies, so they are attracted to salty things, and this can include you!
If a butterfly has ever landed on you, it is not because it likes you or because you look particularly like a flower. We are so sorry gentle readers, but in actuality the butterfly was attracted by the smell of salt in your sweat and blood and it wanted to eat you, but its proboscis was so tiny that you didn’t feel it sucking at you!!
Things That Eat Dead Things – Conclusion
There are all manners of things that eat dead things. Some may find this topic squeamish, but we view it as the natural order of things. We all will die, and when we do there is something there to eat us.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that eat dead things. Did we miss any? Please let us know!
And humans. I only eat meat that’s been dead a few days.