Examples And Characteristics Of Saprophytes

Saprophytes are very important to the ecosystem, so it is important to learn about them and what exactly it is they do for the planet.

Examples And Characteristics Of Saprophytes

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about saprophytes, including what they are with examples, some characteristics, and more!

So, if you are researching saprophytes, or are interested in their role in the ecosystem in general, then read on for more! 

What Are Saprophytes?

Saprophytes, sometimes called saprotrophs, are organisms that get their nourishment from decaying or dead organic matter, plant matter in particular.

Saprophytes help out with nutrient cycling when they break down dead and decaying matter. This ensures that many different minerals and substances are available to other organisms in the way that they need them.

There are many different types of saprophytes, such as fungi, bacteria, flowering plants, and more! 

What Is The Etymology Of The Word “Saprophyte?”

The word “Saprophyte” comes from the Greek words “Phyton” which means “plant”, and “Sapros”, which means “putrid.” 

Put together, and you have a word for an organism that deals with decaying and dead plant matter. 

It is important to note that animals are not considered saprophytes even if they feed on dead animals, such as vultures. This is because saprophytes will only break down decaying or dead plant matter, not animals.

This is where the term saprotroph would be used. “Troth” is derived from the Greek “Trophe” which translates to “nourishment.” 

What Are Some Examples Of Saprophytes?

Here are some examples of saprophytes that you would see in nature! 


First on our list is fungi. Fungi are some of the most common types of saprophytes you will see in nature. Here are some further examples of fungi that are considered to be saprophytes:

  • Yeast
  • Mold – found on bread, manure, vegetables, etc.
  • Mushrooms 
  • Penicillium – found on bread, jellies, fruits, shoes, leather, etc. 
  • Mucor 

And more! 


Bacteria is next on our list. Some types of bacteria are actually saprotrophs and survive by breaking down the matter of decaying and dead animals.

However, there are other types of bacteria that are saprophytes! For example, vibrio japonicus and nitrogen-fixing bacteria are saprophytic. 

Saprophytic bacteria will break down cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose, and other complex organic compounds. 

Flowering Plants

Most plants are able to photosynthesize and make food for themselves, but some flowering plants are actually saprophytes, and will not do this. Let’s check out some examples of saprophytic plants! 

  • Sebaea
  • Burmannia 
  • Ghost plant 

Some of these plants can photosynthesize, but most of the time they will act as a saprophyte. Because they can do both, they are described as hemi saprophytic. 


Next on the list is algae. There are many organisms classified as algae. However, some species of algae are able to photosynthesize. The species of algae that do not photosynthesize lack chlorophyll, such as the genus Polytoma, so will be saprophytic. 

What Are Some Key Characteristics Of Saprophytes?

While all saprophytes are mainly characterized by the fact that they break down decaying and dead plant matter, there are actually some key differences between the different types. 

Let’s check them out in closer detail below! 

Characteristics Of Fungi

Because many types of fungi are saprophytes and do not photosynthesize, they will be found in shaded areas, like underneath vegetation or trees, or where you can find decaying or dead vegetation, like fruit, leaves, stems, and fallen branches. 

Here are some of the key characteristics of saprophytic fungi:


Because fungi are eukaryotic organisms, their cellular organization is complex. Some fungi may be single-celled organisms, like yeast, but some are multicellular, like mushrooms. Multicellular fungi will consist of different parts, like a cap, stalk, hyphae, etc.)

Non-Vascular And No Chlorophyll

As previously mentioned, fungi do not have chlorophyll, so they cannot make their own food. So, because they can’t make their own food, they rely on dead and decaying plant matter, the organic matter around them, for their nourishment. 

On top of not having chlorophyll, fungi are non-vascular. This means that they do not have xylem and phloem, the vascular system, which transports nutrients and water in plants.

Instead of a vascular system, there is a theory that fungi have filamentous structures that are highly branched, called mycelium and hyphae, that help to absorb nutrients. 


To absorb nutrients, saprophytic fungi will create a variety of enzymes. These enzymes degrade and act on a variety of molecules. There are a plethora of fungal enzymes, such as:

  • Lipase 
  • Phytase
  • Xylanase 
  • Cellulase 

And more! 

So, when the compounds, like sugars, cellulose, etc, are broken down, they require nutrients. The hyphae will absorb these nutrients. The organic matter is broken down even more, as mycelium will grow over.

Mycelium can grow on many surfaces and even seep onto the source of food. 


Fungi reproduce both asexually and sexually. When reproducing asexually, yeast and other types of unicellular fungi reproduce via budding. This is where buds will protrude from the parent cell’s body and then detach. 

However, multicellular fungi will reproduce by making a number of haploid spores that will mitotically divide to create mature, haploid spores. 

By producing many of these spores, the chance that spores will land on a substrate increases. Substrates can help to support growth. On top of this, the mycelium of these fungi can start a fragmentation process.

This will allow them to separate into smaller parts, which then allows new fungi to rise. 

Under certain conditions, fungi will reproduce sexually, Here, two nuclei will fuse together which results in fertilization and will produce new fungi. 

Here are some of the other key characteristics of saprophytic fungi:

  •  Can be found in moist areas
  • Have a versatile metabolism 
  • Non-motile 
  • Can form symbiotic relationships with other types of organisms 

Fungi can be divided into four main groups, based on reproduction:


Ever seen moldy bread? That’s a zygomycete! This type of fungi can be found growing on dung and dead plants. They reproduce both sexually, via zygospores, and asexually, via a sporangiophore dispersal. 


Some ascomycetes fungi can be saprophytic. They will reproduce both sexually, through ascospores, and asexually, through conidiospore production. 


These are mushrooms that produce sexually, through basidiospores, and asexually, through fragmentation, budding, etc. 


Here, we have fungi that are imperfect and do not fall into any specific group. The way they reproduce is also not known. 

Saprophytic Bacteria

Saprophytic Bacteria

Saprophytic bacteria can break down lignin, cellulose, and other complex compounds into much simpler forms, which allows other organisms to use them.

Saprophytic bacteria are often found in garden waste, kitchen waste, and other types of waste products. The bacteria here break down the compounds in the waste for their own survival and nourishment. 

Phytopathogens can cause damage and disease to plants, and some people may worry that saprophytic bacteria will do the same thing.

However, there is no need for concern. Some types of saprophytic bacteria can actually form mutually beneficial relationships with plants! 

Let’s look at some more characteristics of saprophytic bacteria:

Unicellular Prokaryotes

All types of saprophytic bacteria are unicellular prokaryotes, unlike fungi. They all can be characterized by a basic cell structure without any membrane-bound organelles. 


Saprophytic bacteria can synthesize numerous enzymes, which gives them the ability to break down compounds. 

For example, there are studies to show that vibrio japonicus is able to produce numerous enzymes like carbohydrate lyases, carbohydrate-binding module proteins, glycoside hydrolases, glycoside hydrolases, and more! 

The saprophytic bacterium saccharophagus degradans can produce enzymes like esterases, lyases, and hydrolases, which can degrade components of cells, like cellulose, pectin, chitin, and more! 

A plant’s cell wall is an organic compound in abundance and is a very important nutrient source for many different organisms. So, by breaking this down, saprophytic bacteria can get the nutrients they need for their survival.

They also make the nutrients other organisms need readily available by breaking down this matter. 

Let’s check out some of the other important characteristics of saprophytic bacteria!

  • Can be found in soil 
  • Can become parasitic in certain circumstances and conditions 
  • Reproduce asexually through a process called binary fission 

Saprophytic Flowering Plants

Saprophytic Flowering Plants

Flowering plants are also known as angiosperms, and they are representative of the most common group of all animals on land. The majority of these plants are autotrophs and are able to make their own food. However, some are saprophytic. 

A great example of a saprophytic plant, as previously mentioned, is the Ghost plant. The Ghost plant does not have any chlorophyll at all, and cannot photosynthesize. However, it will also not gain any nourishment directly from decaying plants, though it is able to gain nourishment from decaying or dead matter in dark areas, such as caves. 

Ghost plants will form a relationship with saprophytic fungi, which will in turn help them to gain the nutrients it needs. 

Some of the fungi they will form a bond with are saprophytic, but some actually have a symbiotic relationship with trees. The fungi will get their nutrients from the trees, or other plants, while the ghost plants take it for their own growth. 

For this reason, the ghost plant is sometimes known as a parasite.

Let’s check out some characteristics of saprophytic flowering plants! 


Some of the saprophytic plants still have chlorophyll and can photosynthesize, while some cannot. Any of the saprophytic plants that cannot photosynthesize will appear pink, yellow, red, or white. 


Unlike bacteria and fungi, saprophytic plants reproduce through pollination. Pollen is produced in flowers and is then transported to the plant’s stigma, which is known as self-pollination, or to another plant, which is known as cross-pollination. 

The pollen, which are male gametes, will fertilize the ovules, which are female gametes in the stigma. These fertilized ovules will become seeds, which then go on to become new flowering plants. 


Most saprophytic plants do not need light energy because they do not have any chlorophyll. So, you are most likely to find them in shaded or dark areas, like under trees, etc. 

Saprophytic Algae

Algae belong to the kingdom Protista and are a big group of photosynthetic organisms. There are not many saprophytic algae, but the ones that are, are a part of the genus Polytoma. 

Unlike other types of algae, saprophytic algae do not have chlorophyll. As previously mentioned, this means they rely on decaying and dead matter for their food. 

Let’s check out some of the main examples of saprophytic algae:

Single-Celled Eukaryote

Some types of algae are multicellular organisms, but the types of algae that are part of the genus Polutoma are single-celled eukaryotes.

So, this means that it is characterized by membrane-bound organelles. Some of which have contractile vacuoles, flagella (a pair), and an eyespot. 

Additionally, these cells are characterized by leucoplasts, which is a type of plastid, and a cell wall that covers the cell. 


Saprophytic algae will feed on rainwater pools and other types of small bodies of water provided this body of water contains dead or decaying vegetation. Saprophytic algae can be found all around the world. 


This type of algae will reproduce both asexually and sexually. When reproducing sexually, algae will create both female and male gametes that fuse to form a zygote.

This zygote will develop into new algae. As for asexual reproduction, a process known as zoosporogenesis happens to help the saprophytic algae reproduce. 

This is when the cell will divide itself to create around 4-8 daughter cells. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are All Fungi Saprophytic In Nature?

Many species of fungi are saprophytes and will be able to decompose complex, organic matter which is beneficial for other organisms, and in turn great for the ecosystem.

Saprophytic fungi will release enzymes onto plants that change them into inorganic molecules. These can then decompose via other microbes. 

However, not all fungi are saprophytic.

Where Can Saprophytic Fungi Be Found?

Saprophytic fungi are all around us. They are in the air that we breathe, as well as in dark areas like caves, and can be found on dead or decaying plant matter like fruit, leaves, and wood.

They grow in a variety of warm temperatures. Naturally, their habitats are in what are known as terrestrial environments, like shaded places, grassland, and forests, 

Mushrooms, for the purpose of agriculture, will also yield in composite soil and woody mulches. 

How Do Saprophytic Fungi Increase Nutritive Value In Soil?

Saprophytic fungi are active decomposers in soil. They balance nutrients through elements like nitrogen, carbon, and other cycles. This makes them essential to the ecosystem.

Here, fungi will become decomposers to transform dead animal and plant energy and make sure it dissolves in soil. 

Then, plants will eventually grow in the soil, the animals will eat them, and then the plants will decompose, and the cycle will begin again. 

Does Saprophytic Fungi Cause Disease?

Yes, some, but not all, saprophytic fungi will cause diseases. The diseases can include: 

  • Mycosis 
  • Athletes foot 
  • Jock Itch 
  • Ringworm 
  • Yeast infections 

However, some saprophytic fungi can actually help to fight disease, like antibiotics. 

What Is The Difference Between A Saprophyte And A Saprotroph?

There is a common misconception that saprophytes and saprotrophs are the same things. While they are similar, there is in fact a key difference between the two.

A saprophyte is an organism that gets its nutrients from decaying or dead plant matter. Examples include certain fungi, bacteria, flowering plants, and algae. 

However, a saprotroph is an organism that gets nutrients from decaying or dead animals. Examples include vultures. Saprophytes will only get their nutrients from decaying or dead plant matter, not animal matter. 

Why Can’t Saprophytic Plants Photosynthesize?

Saprophytic plants are devoid of roots, stems, and leaves. Therefore, they do not possess any chloroplasts and cannot make chlorophyll. This deprives them of the ability to photosynthesize, the process of using light energy to make food for themselves.

Instead, saprophytic flowering plants will get their nutrients from decaying and dead plant matter and will break that down into nutrients that other plants need to live. 

How Do Saprophytic Organisms Help The Ecosystem?

Saprophytes help the ecosystem because they are the main recycler of nutrients.

Saprophytes break down decaying and dead plant matter which helps carbon, nitrogen, and other minerals to be put back into the earth in another form, which other organisms can use for their own nutrients, which allows the cycle to continue.

To put it another way, if there were no saprophytes, then the planet would be completely covered in dead plants (the same way that if there were no saprotrophs.

Then the world would be covered in dead animal bodies) and life would not be able to sustain itself because of the lack of nutrients. 

How Do Saprophytes Reproduce?

Saprophytes reproduce both sexually and asexually, depending on the type of saprophyte. Aprophyitc fungi and algae will reproduce both asexually and sexually. Meanwhile, saprophytic flowering plants will reproduce through pollination.

On the other hand, saprophytic bacteria will reproduce through a process called binary fission, which is the term used to describe the process of a single entity splitting into two parts (or more!) and the further regeneration of those split parts to look like the original entity.

Final Thoughts

A saprophyte is an organism that cannot make its own food. Instead, it will break down dead and decaying plant matter for its nutrients.

These broken-down nutrients will go back into the ecosystem to be used by other organisms. Saprophytes are key to maintaining balance in the ecosystem.

Without them, decaying and dead plant matter would not be broken down and the other organisms that depend on their nutrients will not be able to sustain themselves. The same can be said for saprotrophs, they are essential to the ecosystem.

The word “saprophyte” is actually an umbrella term for many organisms that break down decaying or dead plant matter into nutrients.

The main examples of saprophytic organisms include certain types of fungi, bacteria, flowering plants, and algae. These organisms can be found in different places in our environment, like kitchen waste, under trees, or in dark spots like caves. 

We hope this article tells you all you need to know about the examples and characteristics of saprophytic organisms and why they are essential to the ecosystem. 

Jennifer Dawkins

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