Animal Nutrition and the Digestive System

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Figure 15.1.  For humans, fruits and vegetables are important in maintaining a balanced diet. (credit: modification of work by Julie Rybarczyk)


All living organisms need nutrients to survive. While plants can obtain the molecules required for cellular function through the process of photosynthesis, most animals obtain their nutrients by the consumption of other organisms. At the cellular level, the biological molecules necessary for animal function are amino acids, lipid molecules, nucleotides, and simple sugars. However, the food consumed consists of protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates. Animals must convert these macromolecules into the simple molecules required for maintaining cellular functions, such as assembling new molecules, cells, and tissues. The conversion of the food consumed to the nutrients required is a multi-step process involving digestion and absorption. During digestion, food particles are broken down to smaller components, and later, they are absorbed by the body.

One of the challenges in human nutrition is maintaining a balance between food intake, storage, and energy expenditure. Imbalances can have serious health consequences. For example, eating too much food while not expending much energy leads to obesity, which in turn will increase the risk of developing illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The recent rise in obesity and related diseases makes understanding the role of diet and nutrition in maintaining good health all the more important.

Digestive Systems

Animals obtain their nutrition from the consumption of other organisms. Depending on their diet, animals can be classified into the following categories: plant eaters (herbivores), meat eaters (carnivores), and those that eat both plants and animals (omnivores). The nutrients and macromolecules present in food are not immediately accessible to the cells. There are a number of processes that modify food within the animal body in order to make the nutrients and organic molecules accessible for cellular function. As animals evolved in complexity of form and function, their digestive systems have also evolved to accommodate their various dietary needs.

Herbivores, Omnivores, and Carnivores

Herbivores are animals whose primary food source is plant-based. Examples of herbivores, as shown in Figure 15.2 include vertebrates like deer, koalas, and some bird species, as well as invertebrates such as crickets and caterpillars. These animals have evolved digestive systems capable of handling large amounts of plant material. Herbivores can be further classified into frugivores (fruit-eaters), granivores (seed eaters), nectivores (nectar feeders), and folivores (leaf eaters).

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Figure 15.2.  Herbivores, like this (a) mule deer and (b) monarch caterpillar, eat primarily plant material. (credit a: modification of work by Bill Ebbesen; credit b: modification of work by Doug Bowman)

Carnivores are animals that eat other animals. The word carnivore is derived from Latin and literally means “meat eater.” Wild cats such as lions, shown in Figure 35.3 a and tigers are examples of vertebrate carnivores, as are snakes and sharks, while invertebrate carnivores include sea stars, spiders, and ladybugs, shown in Figure 15.3 b. Obligate carnivores are those that rely entirely on animal flesh to obtain their nutrients; examples of obligate carnivores are members of the cat family, such as lions and cheetahs. Facultative carnivores are those that also eat non-animal food in addition to animal food. Note that there is no clear line that differentiates facultative carnivores from omnivores; dogs would be considered facultative carnivores.

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Figure 15.3.  Carnivores like the (a) lion eat primarily meat. The (b) ladybug is also a carnivore that consumes small insects called aphids. (credit a: modification of work by Kevin Pluck; credit b: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

Omnivores are animals that eat both plant- and animal-derived food. In Latin, omnivore means to eat everything. Humans, bears (shown in Figure 15.4 a), and chickens are example of vertebrate omnivores; invertebrate omnivores include cockroaches and crayfish (shown in Figure 15.4 b).

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Figure 15.4.  Omnivores like the (a) bear and (b) crayfish eat both plant and animal based food. (credit a: modification of work by Dave Menke; credit b: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

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