What is breaking down this leaf?
Notice how this leaf is slowly being broken down. This process can be carried out by fungi and bacteria on the ground. Breaking down old leaves is an important process since it releases the nutrients in the dead leaves back into the soil for living plants to use.
Consumers and Decomposers
Recall that producers make their own food through photosynthesis. But many organisms are not producers and cannot make their own food. So how do these organisms obtain their energy? They must get their energy from other organisms. They must eat other organisms, or obtain their energy from these organisms some other way. The organisms that obtain their energy from other organisms are called consumers. All animals are consumers, and they eat other organisms. Fungi and many protists and bacteria are also consumers. But, whereas animals eat other organisms, fungi, protists, and bacteria "consume" organisms through different methods.
The consumers can be placed into different groups, depending on what they consume.
Herbivores are animals that eat producers to get energy. For example, rabbits and deer are herbivores that eat plants. The caterpillar pictured below (Figure below) is an herbivore. Animals that eat phytoplankton in aquatic environments are also herbivores.
Carnivores feed on animals, either herbivores or other carnivores. Snakes that eat mice are carnivores. Hawks that eat snakes are also carnivores (Figure below).
Omnivores eat both producers and consumers. Most people are omnivores, since they eat fruits, vegetables, and grains from plants, and also meat and dairy products from animals. Dogs, bears, and raccoons are also omnivores.
Examples of consumers are caterpillars (herbivores) and hawks (carnivore).
Decomposers and Stability
Decomposers (Figure below) get nutrients and energy by breaking down dead organisms and animal wastes. Through this process, decomposers release nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, back into the environment. These nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem so that the producers can use them. They are passed to other organisms when they are eaten or consumed.
The stability of an ecosystem depends on the actions of the decomposers. Examples of decomposers include mushrooms on a decaying log. Bacteria in the soil are also decomposers. Imagine what would happen if there were no decomposers. Wastes and the remains of dead organisms would pile up and the nutrients within the waste and dead organisms would not be released back into the ecosystem. Producers would not have enough nutrients. The carbon and nitrogen necessary to build organic compounds, and then cells, allowing an organism to grow, would be insufficient. Other nutrients necessary for an organism to function properly would also not be sufficient. Essentially, many organisms could not exist.
Examples of decomposers are bacteria (a) and fungi (b).
carnivore: Organism that feeds on other animals.
consumer: Organism that must consume other organisms to obtain food for energy.
decomposer: Organism that obtains nutrients and energy by breaking down dead organisms and animal wastes.
herbivore: Animal that eats producers to obtain energy.
omnivore: Animal that eats both producers and consumers.
producer: Organism that produces food for itself and other organisms.
- Consumers must obtain their nutrients and energy by eating other organisms.
- Decomposers break down animal remains and wastes to get energy.
- Decomposers are essential for the stability and survival of an ecosystem.
Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.
- What is the role of decomposers in an ecosystem? What is the source of the matter which is decomposed?
- How do the actions of earthworms improve soil quality? How does this impact the amount of biomass an ecosystem can support?
- How do gastropods function as decomposers?
- What’s the term for a consumer that eats both leaves and fish?
- What are the different types of consumers?
- Why are decomposers important in the ecosystem?