Difference Between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 21, 2022


Difference Between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs Difference Between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs

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All living things on our planet rely on food as their sole energy source. This food can be obtained from a variety of sources. Every organ is reliant on another for nourishment, or on non-living substances. This is referred to as a food chain.

A food chain is a network of linkages in a food web that starts with producers and ends with apex predators, detritivores, or decomposer species. A food chain also demonstrates how creatures are linked by the food they consume. A distinct level of the food chain represents each trophic level in it.

By the method of food production, living organisms are broadly divided into two categories: heterotrophs and autotrophs. In this article, we will take a look at their food production methods and thorough knowledge about the same.

Heterotrophs vs Autotrophs

In simple words, organisms that are dependent on other organisms for food are known as heterotrophs. Whereas organisms that produce their own food by the process of photosynthesis or chemosynthesis are known as autotrophs. Autotrophs are self-producers and are placed at the primary level of the food pyramid. Heterotrophs are dependent organisms and are placed at the second or third level of the food pyramid. 

Difference between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs In Tabular Form

Table: Heterotrophs vs Autotrophs
Type of organisms
Plants and unicellular organisms.
all animals
Dependency on food
They are dependent on other organisms or autotrophs for food.
They prepare their own food by using natural resources.
Chloroplasts are not available in heterotrophs
Chloroplasts are available to help convert sources into food.
Source of energy
they obtain the required energy from other organisms 
They convert light energy into chemical energy to obtain energy from inorganic sources.
Location in the food chain
Heterotrophs are placed at the second or third level of the food chain.
The primary level of the food chain is they are a producer of food.
Heterotrophs can move from one place to another.
Some Autotrophs from the plant kingdom cannot move from one place to another. Bacteria and some unicellular organisms can move from one place to another.
Photoheterotroph and Chemoheterotroph
Photoautotroph and Chemoautotroph
Role in producing foods
Heterotrophs are consumers.
Autotrophs are producers.

What Are Heterotrophs?

An organism that gets its energy and nutrients from other plants or animals is known as a heterotroph. The word is derived from the Greek concepts hetero and trophe, which indicate "other" and "nutrition," respectively.

Types of Heterotrophs


A carnivore is a creature that predominantly consumes meat or animal flesh. Carnivores play an important role in the food chain, which describes which creatures feed which others in the wild. Carnivores are among the world's most deadly predators. Carnivores have unusually keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell, in addition to their larger brains, which makes them even more hazardous while hunting prey.

Carnivores include wild creatures like tigers, lions, and cheetahs. Because it requires more protein than other animals, the pet animal cat is also a carnivore.


Herbivores are the animals that eat plant material as a prominent part of their diet. Herbivorous animals' mouthparts are often suited to rasping or grinding as a result of their plant diet. Herbivores come in many shapes and sizes, from tiny aphids to gigantic elephants. Herbivores are essential members of the food chain.

Herbivores require a great deal of energy to survive. Many of them, such as cows and sheep, graze all day. Our ecology should include a lot of plants to support your herbivores. Carnivores and omnivores will consume herbivores if placed in the environment, so making absolutely sure to have enough herbivores to support them is necessary.


An omnivore is a creature that consumes both plants and animals. The name comes from the Latin words Omnis, which means "all," and vorare, which means "to consume or eat." Omnivores are essential members of the food chain. There are now about 8.7 million animal species classified as omnivores.

Humans are omnivores without a doubt. Our teeth are the greatest evidence: humans have biting, tearing, and ripping incisors and canines (like carnivores) as well as chewing molars (like herbivores). Omnivores are animals having a wide range of teeth.

Grains are parts of a balanced dog diet. Dogs are thought to be carnivores by many people. Dogs are omnivores, and even wild wolves get their sustenance from both plant and animal sources.


Scavengers are creatures that devour the flesh of deceased animals for nourishment. Decomposers are another name for scavengers. Scavengers are an important part of the food chain. They keep the environment free of rotting flesh, or animal remains. Scavengers break down this organic waste and recycle it as nutrients back into the environment.

Vultures, hyenas, coyotes, raccoons, and other scavengers are examples. Bird scavengers include the bald eagle, crows, and peacocks.


Decomposers eat dead plant materials like leaf litter and wood, as well as animal corpses and excrement. As Planet's clean-up army, they provide a crucial service. If decomposers didn't exist, dead leaves, insects, and animals would accumulate everywhere.

The major distinction between a scavenger and a decomposer is that a scavenger eats dead plants, animals, or carrion to break down organic materials into minute particles, whereas a decomposer eats the microscopic particles created by scavengers.

Decomposers include bacteria, fungus, millipedes, slugs, woodlice, and worms.


A detritivore is an organism that feeds on the remains of dead or decaying plants or animals. Microorganisms like bacteria, as well as bigger organisms like fungus, insects, worms, and crustaceans, are detritivores. The term detritivore is derived from the words detritus and -vore.

Creatures that feed on the organic waste of dead plants and animals are called detritivores, whereas organisms that break down dead plants and animals are called decomposers.

The Significance of Heterotrophic Organisms in the Ecosystem

  • Heterotrophs recycle nutrients and organic molecules from other species in the food chain, putting them to good use in their bodies or excrete, and therefore aid the germination and dispersion of seeds from a range of plants.
  • In order to germinate, certain plant seeds must travel through the digestive system of a heterotroph, or consumer.
  • Heterotrophs also use their excrement to nourish the soil and/or water.
  • They manage to keep the populations of their prey at a manageable level.
  • Predators prefer to consume older and weaker individuals, or those that are less able to survive, in order to maintain their target population healthy.
  • Decomposers also help to keep the environment clean and healthy.
  • Heterotrophs contribute to environmental balance by supplying biological compounds for autotrophs.

What Are Autotrophs?

An autotroph is a living organism that can make its own sustenance from light, water, carbon dioxide, or other substances. Autotrophs are also known as producers since they manufacture their own food. Autotrophs employ one of two mechanisms to produce food from inorganic materials: photosynthesis or chemosynthesis. Autotrophs include plants, algae, plankton, and microorganisms.

Types of Autotrophs


The majority of well-known phototrophs are autotrophic, also known as photoautotrophs, and have the ability to fix carbon. Chemotrophs, on the other hand, get their energy from the oxidation of electron donors in their surroundings. Photoautotrophs use light as an energy source to synthesize their own food from inorganic chemicals. Photoautotrophs include green plants and photosynthetic microorganisms. Holophytic organisms are photoautotrophic creatures that are photoautotrophic. Light provides energy for food production, and such organisms are capable of utilizing carbon dioxide as their primary carbon source.

Chlorophyll is used by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms to collect light energy and oxidize water, dividing it into molecular oxygen. Anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria, on the other hand, use a material called bacteriochlorophyll to collect light energy, thrive in watery conditions, and use light to oxidize chemical compounds like hydrogen sulfide rather than water.

Photoautotrophic bacteria capture and transform light energy into chemical energy. They, like plants, produce their own food. Bacteria that are photoautotrophic can either do oxygenic or Anoxygenic photosynthesis. Photosynthetic bacteria are utilized as biofertilizers, bioremediation agents, wastewater treatment agents, and contaminated water purification agents.


Chemoautotrophs are creatures that get their energy from a chemical process (chemotrophs), but their carbon source is carbon dioxide, which is the most oxidized form of carbon (CO2). Chemolithoautotrophs, which utilize inorganic energy sources such as ferrous iron, hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, elemental sulfur, or ammonia, and CO2 as their carbon source, is the most well-known chemoautotrophs. All chemoautotrophs that have been discovered are prokaryotes belonging to the Archaea or Bacteria domains. They've been found in a variety of severe conditions, including deep-sea vents, the deep biosphere, and acidic environments. This method of energy conservation is one of the oldest on the planet.


To generate energy for development, certain fungi employ gamma radiation and a pigment called melanin. When met in significant quantities, gamma radiation is a high-frequency band of light that is invisible to humans and can cause harm to human tissues. Radiotrophs are fungi that are odd and rare. They've been discovered within and around Ukraine's abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The Significance of Autotrophic Organisms in the Ecosystem

  • When the quantity of autotrophs increases, the number of creatures that consume them typically increases as well. However, a reduction in the quantity and diversity of autotrophs in a given location might have disastrous consequences for the entire food chain.
  • Herbivores like rabbits can't find food if a forested area burns down in a forest fire or is cleared to create a shopping mall. Some rabbits may relocate to a better environment, while others may perish. Rabbits are also a food supply for foxes and other meat-eaters, thus they go extinct without them. To survive, they, too, must move.
  • If there were no autotrophs on Earth, heterotrophs that ate the autotrophs (for example, a cow eating grass) would starve to death.
  • Autotrophs such as plants use the carbon dioxide in the air to make their food. This helps balance the air pollution and keep the air cleaner. Plants also retain groundwater that, in turn, helps the ecosystem on many levels.

Main Differences Between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs in Points

  • Autotrophs are called producers because they can create their food using only raw materials and energy. Heterotrophs are consumers and they eat both consumers and producers.
  • Heterotrophs, such as dogs, birds, fish, and people, occupy the second and third tiers of a food chain. Plants and algae, for example, provide the first tier of the food chain for autotrophs.
  • Autotrophs and heterotrophs vary in that the former can create their own food through photosynthesis while the latter cannot.
  • Another significant distinction between autotrophs and heterotrophs is that autotrophs have chlorophyll, a component that allows them to harness the energy of sunlight during photosynthesis, but heterotrophs cannot.
  • Photosynthesis benefits heterotrophs in a number of ways. They rely on the photosynthetic process for oxygen, which is created as a by-product. Autotrophs, on the other hand, rely on photosynthesis to survive.
  • Heterotrophs can move from one place to another in search of food but most autotrophs cannot. Microorganisms can move from one place to another. However, organisms of the plant kingdom cannot change their location.
  • Autotrophs make their food by the process of photosynthesis or by chemically. Type of heterotrophs such as photoheterotrophs and chemoheterotrophs also obtain their energy from chemicals and light. However, they are also dependent on other organisms for food.
  • Autotrophic organisms include all plants and unicellular creatures. All other creatures in the animal kingdom are classified as heterotrophs.


Autotrophs are creatures that can manufacture their own food using a source of energy such as sunlight. Heterotrophs are unable to manufacture their own food and must rely on the energy provided by the foods they consume. Heterotrophs must either consume autotrophs directly or consume other heterotrophs who have consumed autotrophs.

Despite the fact that autotrophs are major food providers, fertilizers made from decomposed animal matter considerably aid in the provision of nutrients to the plant. Both heterotrophs and autotrophs are necessary for maintaining ecological and food chain equilibrium. Any mismatch in any of these will destabilize the ecosystem's balance


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"Difference Between Heterotrophs and Autotrophs." Diffzy.com, 2022. Sun. 25 Sep. 2022. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-heterotrophs-and-autotrophs-175>.

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