Autotroph vs Heterotroph

The difference between an autotroph vs heterotroph is in the way each gets its energy. While autotrophs manufacture their own food, heterotrophs cannot do this, so they must eat or absorb it. A good way to remember the difference between autotrophs and heterotrophs is to keep in mind that autotrophs are producers and heterotrophs are consumers.

Read on below for an in depth look into the difference between an autotroph and a heterotroph.

Autotroph vs heterotroph

What Is the Difference between an Autotroph and a Heterotroph?

The main difference between autotrophs and heterotrophs is the way each organism gets its food. While an autotroph produces its own food, a heterotroph consumes other organisms for food. As a result, an autotroph is the opposite of a heterotroph.

The words autotroph and heterotroph share the same root word troph which means an organism with certain nutritional requirements. The prefix auto means self while the prefix hetero mean different. Therefore an autotroph itself is responsible for making its nutrition and a heterotroph gets its nutrition from potentially different sources.

While all living organisms need energy, autotrophs and heterotrophs are no different. When comparing an autotroph vs heterotroph, the primary distinction between the two is how they each get nutrition.

Autotrophic Nutrition

Autotrophic nutrition is the ability for an organism to create or produce it’s own food. Two examples are photosynthesis and chemosynthesis.

As you may know, photosynthesis is the process by which some plants and organisms use sunlight to make foods from carbon dioxide and water. Consequently, plants and organisms which use photosynthesis for their nutrition are autotrophic in nature.

Another means of autotrophic nutrition is chemosynthesis. Organisms that may not have sunlight to depend on use energy from chemical reactions to make food. As a result, organisms which use chemosynthesis for their nutrition are also autotrophic.

Heterotrophic Nutrition

Heterotrophic nutrition is a type of nutrition in which energy is derived from the intake of organic substances. Consequently, heterotrophs depend on autotrophs and other heterotrophs for their nutrition.

Some forms of heterotrophic nutrition such as holozoic and parasitic are detrimental to their food source. While holozoic heterotrophs eat their food whole, parasitic heterotrophs obtain their food from other living organisms where the host receives no benefit from the parasite.

On the other hand, saprophytic and symbiotic heterotrophic nutrition isn’t detrimental to the food source. While saprophytic heterotrophs eat the dead organic remains of other organisms, symbiotic heterotrophs either benefit each other.

Autotroph Examples

Autotroph examples include plants, algae, and some types of bacteria. Here are some specific autotroph examples:

  • Green algae
  • Redwood trees
  • Moss
  • Ferns
  • Rose
  • Banana tree
  • Kelp
  • Grass
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans

Heterotroph Examples

Heterotroph examples include herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores. Here are some specific heterotroph examples:

  • Giraffes
  • Humans
  • Lions
  • Bumble bees
  • Penguins
  • Lizards
  • Snails
  • Owls
  • Orca whales
  • Scorpions

Are Plants Autotrophs or Heterotrophs?

Most plants are autotrophs, but some plants are heterotrophs.

Every plant that gets its primary nutrition through photosynthesis is an autotroph. Even carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap is considered autotrophic because its primary nutrition is from photosynthesis.

An example of a plant that is a heterotroph is the Rafflesia flower. While the Rafflesia has no stems, leaves, or roots, the only visible part of this heterotrophic plant is the flower. The rest of the parasitic plant exists inside the stems and roots of its host.

Rafflesia is a heterotroph plant

Is Fungi Autotrophic or Heterotrophic?

Are fungi autotrophs? Well, no. All fungi are heterotrophs.

While animals are heterotrophs by ingestion, fungi are heterotrophs by absorption. In other words, just because fungus doesn’t have a mouth like humans and animals, doesn’t mean it’s an autotroph.

Is Archaebacteria Autotrophic or Heterotrophic?

Archaebacteria, also known as archaea, can be autotrophic or heterotrophic. In other words, some archaebacteria are autotrophs while other archaebacteria are heterotrophs.

Most archaebacteria are autotrophs and they get their nutrition through a variety of chemical reactions. While some archaebacteria are lithotrophs and get their energy from inorganic compounds, others are organotrophs and get their energy from organic compounds. Even still, other archaea are phototrophs and get their energy from sunlight.


If you made it this far, you should be able to compare and contrast an autotroph vs heterotroph. Still have questions? Let me know in the comments below, and check out some other animal blog posts here.

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