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11.1: Herbivores

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  • Herbivores eat plant material. While no animal produces the digestive enzymes to break down the large cellulose molecules in the plant cell walls, micro-organisms' like bacteria, on the other hand, can break them down. Therefore herbivores employ micro-organisms to do the job for them.

    There are three types of herbivore:

    1. The first, ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats, house these bacteria in a special compartment in the enlarged stomach called the rumen.
    2. The second group has an enlarged large intestine and caecum, called a functional caecum, occupied by cellulose digesting micro-organisms. These non-ruminant herbivores include the horse, rabbit and rat.
    3. Humans also have a cecum and can be classified as the third type of herbivorous class, along with orangutans and gorillas.

    Plants are a primary pure and good source of nutrients, however they aren't digested very easily and therefore herbivores have to eat large quantities of food to obtain all they require. Herbivores like cows, horses and rabbits typically spend much of their day feeding. To give the micro-organisms access to the cellulose molecules, the plant cell walls need to be broken down. This is why herbivores have teeth that are adapted to crush and grind. Their guts also tend to be lengthy and the food takes a long time to pass through it.

    Eating plants have other advantages. Plants are immobile so herbivores normally have to spend little energy collecting them. This contrasts with another main group of animals - the carnivores that often have to chase their prey.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)