An oft repeated statement in the conservation movement is that all animals are important to an ecosystem and each species plays its own role within that ecosystem. I’ve even mentioned it before in my post on “The Importance of Helping Endangered Species.” However, I’ve noticed that people don’t usually explain what this statement means and how exactly different species contribute to the ecosystem they reside within. Different types of organisms contribute to their ecosystem in unique ways and I’d like to give a basic idea of how they accomplish this, so you can understand the importance of focusing on helping all different kinds of species!
A lot of these terms and information you probably learned about in middle or high school biology, but likely haven’t heard them much since then. Ecosystems are much more complex than the information I’m giving, but I think it’s important that people have a basic understanding of how ecosystems work, especially in our efforts for conservation. There are three main roles, or niches, in every ecosystem, so I’ll address these and give some information on their roles and the organisms that would be found in these niches.
A producer is the organism that creates the primary energy used within an ecosystem. Almost always, producers are plants. These organisms use sunlight for photosynthesis, which is how they get their energy in order to grow. Eventually other animals will eat them and the producers pass on their energy as chemical energy. Over time, energy leaves the ecosystem as heat and goes back into the rest of the biosphere. Producers are incredibly important to this process of creating and passing on energy because they’re the first source of energy; without them, an ecosystem couldn’t survive at all. However, producers are often overlooked in conservation efforts in favor of animals.
Examples of producers are moss, seaweed, bamboo, orchids - pretty much any kind of plant that you would find in the environment. People don’t often mention them, but there are endangered plants, such as the Arizona Agave or the Rafflesia Flower. Some of these plants are endangered due to encroachment on their environment, since they can’t move like many animals can. Others are disappearing because of their health benefits to humans (whether real or imagined) and aren’t being replanted at the same rate.
Consumers eat producers and use the plants to generate energy. Some consumers also eat other consumers for energy or other consumers and producers (like humans do). The main types of consumers are herbivores (eat only plants), carnivores (eat only meat), and omnivores (eat both). A larger amount of producers are required to provide enough energy for consumers. Most ecosystems are more like pyramids, with producers making up the base.
Generally, conservation efforts are focused on consumers, because they’re the best-known and easiest to identify. Animals like tigers, deer, frogs, snakes, and nearly all other animals are considered consumers.
Decomposers are the final group in an ecosystem and responsible for consuming dead matter. These organisms do not have a very glamorous job, but they’re vital to keeping an ecosystem clean and balanced. As decomposers do their jobs, the remaining energy leaves the ecosystem as heat, moving back into the atmosphere.
Examples of decomposers are worms, fungi, and snails, along with bacteria and various other types of organisms.