8 julio, 2024

Detritus (in biology, in geology, in medicine): what is it

What is detritus?

detritus It is a Latin word that means worn, and that is used to define the result obtained from the disintegration of a solid mass into particles. The term is widely used in biology to define decaying biogenic remains. In other sciences it is not necessarily used with the same meaning.

Sometimes the form detritus (singular) or detritus (plural) is used, and it can also be used as an adjective, that is, detrital. Despite being widely used in biology, there are discrepancies regarding the inclusion or not of decomposing microorganisms within what is defined, in this science, as detritus.

in biology

The scientist R. Darnell defined detritus as all types of biogenic material (organic matter) that have undergone different levels of decomposition by microbes and that can be used as a source of energy by consuming organisms.

The detritus is basically made up of dead organisms, or part of them, such as leaves, trunks, roots (vegetable remains, slower decomposition), bones, shells, scales (animal remains), among others. The fecal remains of animals are also included: different species of microorganisms decompose these remains.

As the remains of organisms decompose, smaller remains are obtained. Additionally, humic substances (or humus) are formed, which are resistant to further decomposition.

Importance of detritus

Not all the biomass produced by autotrophic or heterotrophic organisms is used by organisms of the higher trophic level, on the contrary, the vast majority of biomass, at least plant biomass, is finally deposited in the soil when the organisms die.

This biomass is decomposed to form detritus, which will be used as an energy source by detritus-eating organisms and will sustain what is known as detritus food chains.

For example, in mangrove ecosystems, one of the most productive worldwide, the detritus food chains supported by decomposing leaf litter can be quite complex and diverse.

Detritus and its use by detritus feeders affect trophic structures, as well as community dynamics, since it allows a greater diversity of species to be supported in an ecosystem, mainly predatory organisms, than could exist if it depended solely and directly on producers. primaries.

Additionally, detritus helps stabilize the energy flow of an ecosystem. It can even alter the configuration of the community structure by inhibiting the presence of some species and favoring the presence of others.

Detritus classification

Organisms that feed directly on detritus are called detritivores or saprophagous. Within these are found from protists to vertebrates, and can be classified according to their feeding mechanisms into two types; selective and non-selective.

selective detritus

Organisms that feed on the organic matter present in the sediment, therefore, make a prior selection of the material they are going to eat. For example, fiddler crabs (Uca, Minuca and related genera) are selective detritivores.

These crabs take portions of sediment and carefully separate organic matter (detritus) from the grains of sand, using specialized structures for it. Once both materials are separated, they will only eat the detritus.

The grains of sand, cleaned of organic matter, are accumulated in the form of small sand balls that are deposited on the ground, without having been ingested.

Non-selective detritus

They are organisms that ingest the sediment to take advantage of the organic matter during the feeding process. For example, sea cucumbers and sand dollars are non-selective detritivores.

in geology

For geology, detritus is the disintegrated material or sediment of rocks, produced by different processes that include diagenesis, weathering and erosion. Diagenesis is the set of physical and chemical reactions that occur between minerals, or between minerals and fluids in the sedimentary process.

Weathering is the set of processes that cause the destruction of rocks by atmospheric agents. On the other hand, erosion includes weathering and the transport of disintegrated material to sedimentary deposits.

The detritus will be deposited in the sedimentary basins, there they can be compacted, giving rise to the so-called sedimentary rocks. On the other hand, the waste thrown by volcanoes is also called volcanic detritus.

A debris cone, for its part, is the accumulation in a valley of pieces of rocks, stones, etc., which acquire this geometric shape when detached from the slopes or cliffs of a mountain.

An example of sedimentary deposits are sandy beaches. According to the geological definition, the sands are detritus formed by remains of solid materials decomposed into very fine fractions. These fractions are mainly fragments of siliceous rocks, as well as remains of mollusk shells, corals, among others.

Another common example of detrital materials are clays. These are formed from aluminum, sodium, potassium or calcium silicates (feldspars). For the formation of clays, the disintegration of feldspars by atmospheric agents must occur.

In medicine

Detritus in medicine is material from the disintegration into particles of solid materials and cellular waste products, and dead cells. It is particularly taken into consideration in dentistry and traumatology.


In endodontics, detritus is the material composed of dentin chips, as well as living or dead residual tissue that adheres to the walls of the root canal of teeth. This debris forms what is known as smear layer or “smear layer”.

Endodontic treatments cause debris due to the wear caused by surgical instruments on the teeth. This debris is difficult to eradicate due to the configuration of the root canals, which tends to occlude, and because its removal causes more dentin remains that can create new debris.


The implantation of bone prostheses to repair damage caused by trauma or wear causes the formation of debris during bone drilling. Wear over time of prosthetic material, such as bone cement, also produces debris.

Debris and necrotic tissue caused by drilling create the conditions for the growth of microorganisms and abscesses that can become complicated and jeopardize the success of the transplant.

Additionally, the debris caused by mechanical friction and wear on bone cement are a potential cause of osteonecrosis and osteolysis in patients with implants.


EP Odum. Ecology: The link between the natural and social sciences. Editorial Continental, S.A.
P. Mason & L. Varnell. Detritus: Mother Nature’s Rice Cake. Wetlands Program Technical Reports.
Detrirus. Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org.
Sedimentary rocks. Recovered from gob.mx.
G. Ramos, N. Calvo, R. Fierro. Conventional adhesion in dentin, difficulties and advances in the technique. Faculty of Dentistry Magazine, University of Antioquia.

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