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In this lesson, you will learn about organisms that are not able to provide their own food and must eat other organisms to survive. Heterotrophs must consume other living material, which provides the energy they need to live.

What’s a Heterotroph?

Think about all of the food you ate today. It must come from somewhere, right? All of that food came from other organisms that used to be alive. We need to eat these other organisms because they provide energy for us to live.Because you need to eat other organisms to get energy, this makes you a heterotroph.

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Heterotrophs are also called ‘other feeders,’ and because they need to consume energy to sustain themselves, they are also known as ‘consumers.’Some organisms are actually able to survive by making their own food. These organisms are called autotrophs. Autotrophs are also called ‘self-feeders,’ and they are able to produce energy from sunlight and carbon dioxide and are therefore known as ‘producers.’ The only autotrophs that we know of are plants and some types of algae. This makes all other organisms heterotrophs.

Examples of Heterotrophs

Not all plants are autotrophic; a few are actually heterotrophic.

The European mistletoe is a parasitic plant, surviving off of a host plant. Other plants, such as pitcher plants, are carnivorous and feed on other organisms, like insects.You are a heterotroph. Your dog, cat, bird, fish, etc.

are all heterotrophs too because you all depend on other organisms as an energy source. Other animal heterotrophs you are likely familiar with include deer, squirrels, rabbits, mice, and other animals you may see around your yard or a nearby park or forest.Bacteria are also heterotrophs, as well as fungi. Fungi break down dead and decaying organisms, which makes them detritivores. Detritivores serve an important role in helping to recycle plant and animal material that is no longer living and return those nutrients to the ecosystem.

It is important to note that not all heterotrophs rely on the same food sources for energy. Some heterotrophs eat only producers, like a gazelle eating grass. Some eat both producers and other consumers, like a bear eating game and berries. And some eat only other consumers, like a cougar eating a deer. Consumers that eat only producers are called herbivores, those that eat only other consumers are called carnivores, and those that eat both producers and consumers are called omnivores.

Lesson Summary

Any organism that can’t make its own food is a heterotroph.

Heterotrophs may eat food sources that are different from other heterotrophs, but as long as they are not able to produce their own food, they are ‘other feeders.’In contrast, autotrophs are able to produce their own food and because of this, autotrophs often provide food to many heterotrophs. Most organisms on Earth are heterotrophs, even some plants, which are parasitic or carnivorous.

A Few Notes

The three categories of heterotrophs
Types of heterotrophs
  • Heterotrophs are unable to produce their own food, which is why they are called ‘consumers’
  • Heterotrophs consume animals and plants for energy
  • Heterotrophs are the opposite of autotrophs, or organisms that are able to produce their own food
  • Heterotrophs can be herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain what a heterotroph is
  • Differentiate between heterotrophs and autotrophs
  • Describe the three categories of heterotrophs

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