Saprophytes: What They Are and Examples - Summary

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Did you know that the existence of saprophytic organisms is vital in the trophic chain of all the ecosystems of the planet? The important work they perform in decomposing dead organic matter, recycling it and transforming it into inorganic matter, allows plants to have the inorganic substances they need to feed themselves autotrophically. Furthermore, the recycling of organic matter carried out by saprophytes contributes directly to increasing soil fertility, increasing nutrient-rich humus and maintaining complex nutrient cycles.

If you want to learn more about what are saprophytes and examplesIn this Green Ecologist article you will discover in detail the important work of these organisms in the natural use and recycling of organic matter.

What are saprophytes

Coming from the greek toads (rotten) and fyton (plant), the saprophytic concept represents the set of organisms whose diet is based on decomposing plant substances. In this way, saprophytic organisms are distinguished by following a type of heterotrophic nutrition based on substances of decomposing dead matter, mainly from the mineralization of plant remains, such as dry leaves, fruits and wood, among others. Among the saprophytic organisms are numerous species of fungi, bacteria and protozoa, all of them belonging to the Protista kingdom.

However, it should be noted that this group includes only and exclusively externally digested organisms, that is, those unicellular and multicellular organisms that obtain the necessary nutrients for their nutrition through the absorption of organic substances. This absorption can be carried out by osmosis (osmotrophic organisms) or through phagocytosis (saprophagous organisms). In this way, it is important not to confuse saprophytes with other organisms that feed on decomposing dead matter through internal digestion, such as scavengers, since they ingest such matter and later digest it inside.

On the other hand, it is interesting to highlight how saprophytic organisms behave like parasitic organisms on numerous occasions. Depending on this transformation of eating behavior, it is possible to distinguish the following classification of saprophytes:

  • True saprophytes: they always feed on decomposing substances without harming other organisms.
  • Facultative parasites: Saprophytic organisms that, when they have a suitable host organism, tend to behave like parasites. This is the case with many bacteria and fungi that cause disease and rot in plants.
  • Facultative saprophytes: Parasitic organisms capable of growing in a saprophytic way, although they do not manage to be good competitors against true saprophytes present in the same organism or same portion of the soil in which they are found. In this case, most of the fungi and bacteria that feed on the foliar and vascular remains of the plants are included.

Where are the saprophytes

Thanks to the decomposing action of the saprophytes, the organic matter is recycled, forming the natural humus of the soils. For this reason, it is common to find saprophytic organisms in ecosystems that have the moisture and the amount of decomposing organic matter necessary for them to feed.

These ecosystems include soils rich in organic matter, coniferous forests and deciduous trees in which it is common to find decomposing logs and plant remains. Thus, depending on the nature of the substance in which the saprophytes are found, it is possible to classify them as:

  • Humiculturalists: They live on the humus formed in the upper layers of the soil by accumulation of decomposing plant remains.
  • Lignicultural: the dead wood of the trunks and branches constitute the base of their diet.
  • Earthlings: They feed in areas of soils with little vegetation and without hummus, such as slopes and some roadsides.
  • Folícola: the leaves constitute the exclusive diet of these saprophytes, which digest both the veins and the leaf blades.
  • Pyrophiles: the burned land also serves as a food source for saprophytes.
  • Cortícolas: This group includes those saprophytes that feed exclusively on the bark of deciduous and coniferous trees.

Examples of saprophytes

As we saw at the beginning of the article, saprophytic organisms are represented by fungi, bacteria, and some protozoa, all of them included within the protist kingdom. Since of the three groups of organisms mentioned, fungi are the easiest to find in nature, here is a list of many of the saprophytic fungi more common:

  • Kuehneromyces mutabilis
  • Armillaria mellea
  • Pleurotus ostreatus
  • Gloeophyllum sepiarium
  • Piptoporus betulinus
  • Marasmius hedera (grows on ivy leaves).
  • Marasmius epiphyllus (grows on oak leaves).
  • Marasmius hudsonii (grows on holly leaves).

If you want to read more articles similar to Saprophytes: what they are and examples, we recommend that you enter our Biology category.

  • Pfenning, L. & Magalhaes, L. (2010). Saprophytic soil fungi and plant pathogens. Tropical Soil Biology Manual, ACADEMIA Magazine, Acelerating the World's Research, pp: 245-250.
  • Biosphere Project (2022). The classification of organisms. Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, Government of Spain. Retrieved from:
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