Getting Connected 6: Decomposers and Scavengers

Decomposers and scavengers

I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but Americans seem to be extremely ashamed of their waste. We do everything we possibly can to avoid looking at it ever again. To reuse anything is beneath us. For this reason, some people may find it impossible to believe that some organisms, even some people, rely on that waste for their survival.

Scavengers are animals or insects that find dead plants and animals and eat them. Most insects, such as flies, wasps, cockroaches and termites, can fall into this category. Birds like vultures are too.

Scavengers help break down larger organisms into something that is easier for decomposers to handle. Without them, things would take a lot longer to breakdown and there would be more a risk of pathogens and diseases spreading.

Scavengers include cockroaches, (which can live up to a week without their head and only then because they can’t drink water) opossums, which eat road kill, crabs and lobsters are some known scavengers in the sea.

Vultures are known as specialists in their fields. Vultures are the primary scavengers in places like the savannah, but other species that play both carnivore and scavenger, such as lions or hyenas aren’t specialists in their fields and don’t always find the carcasses unless they follow the aerial movements of the vultures.

Carnivores such as coyotes and foxes can also fill the role of scavengers during the winter or when other food sources are scarce.

The scavengers leave behind scraps and this when the decomposers step in. They recycle the scraps into nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen that are then released back into the soil, air and water. There are many types of decomposers. Some of them can’t be seen with the naked eye, but other decomposers like fungi can.

Bacteria are decomposers. One such bacterium called rhizobium has special beneficial relationships with legumes (alfalfa, lentils, beans, chick-peas, peas, and peanuts). Legumes have more protein than most other plants and that’s because the roots of legumes are host to nitrogen-fixing bacteria and this bacteria change the nitrogen in the air into the nitrates plants need to synthesize proteins.

Rhizobium bacteria invade the root hairs of the plants. They multiply and help root nodules grow. Then the bacteria changes free nitrogen, or the nitrogen from the air, to nitrates.

Fungi like mushrooms, mildew, mold and toadstools don’t make their own food. Fungi release enzymes that decompose dead plants and animals. Fungi absorb nutrients from the organisms they are decomposing. There are many fungi that are helpful. Penicillin and other antibiotics are made from fungi. Some fungi like mushrooms, truffles and yeast are edible or used in making food. There are many species of fungi that are harmful, so I don’t recommend that you go tromping around in the woods looking to make your own medicine.  And you should be an extremely expertised mushroomer before you try to pick your own mushrooms to eat.

Red worms used for vermicomposting and earthworms are also known for their expertise in decomposing.

Without scavengers and decomposers nutrients couldn’t be recycled and that would mean that plants would never grow and on and on the cycle goes.

I certainly learned a lot during this little series and I hope you did too. I even made a 100 on this scavenger and decomposer quiz. 🙂

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