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. 🙂

Getting Connected 5: Herbivores and Carnivores

Maintaining plant diversity is essential in order to maintain animal diversity and maintaining the plant diversity is the sole responsibility of herbivores.

Herbivory, like other types of disturbance, can help maintain species diversity in communities by removing plant species that compete intensively for resources, which allows other competitively inferior species to coexist.

Herbivores are important as they are the first link in connecting the energy locked within plants to the vast number of animals within ecosystems. Herbivory is important in determining the population abundance and dynamics of individual plant species as herbivores often eat or kill whole plants or affect how much a plant can reproduce. Additionally, herbivores often regulate the species composition of plant communities, the total amount of plant biomass in the ecosystems, and the magnitude of ecosystem functional processes such as primary production, decomposition, and transfer of energy and materials up the food chain.

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/january17/pringle-011707.html

Herbivores, both large and small, help disperse seeds and help fertilize the soil. Ironically, synthetic fertilizers are actually doing more harm than good; they’re a short term solution for a long term problem. It’s kind of like skipping breakfast and then when you realize what a mistake that was and decide to grab a candy bar on your way to work. It satisfies your hunger for a microsecond and you crash. Cow manure and other herbivores, especially large herbivores put nutrients back in the soil. Synthetic fertilizers put some nutrients in the soil, but because it’s composed of basically structured like salt it just soaks up the water. Also, the nutrients in this soil are water soluble, which means that you have to water. The more you water the more minerals are washed away. Microorganisms help decompose organic material (manure or compost) and that is how the soil gets its nutrients. If there is no decomposing material (manure or compost), there is no microorganisms then there is no nutrients. The cycle of needing to provide another nitrogen fix escalates as the soil fertility decreases. Certain lawn diseases worsen in the presence of excess nitrogen. Weeds may start to dominate the lawn, when the grass is thin to start with and the weeds are many. The list of problems that artificial fertilizers create goes on and on.

Carnivores also play extremely important roles. Without them the herbivores would strip the Earth bare of all food sources. The ecosystem would never be balanced without them. Populations of carnivores are often kept in check by other carnivores.

And then there is a controversy about hunting and whether it harms or benefits the ecosystem.

On the one side you have people saying there couldn’t be anything more natural and that it helps keep the ecosystem in check.

And on the other you have others saying that it’s morally wrong and creates an unbalance in the ecosystem.

I remember hearing a while back about the controversy of the damage wolves were doing in national parks in the north.

If I remember correctly, and I’m not totally sure I do but I’ll do the best I can, the problem was that there were too many wolves and they were eating too many deer and cattle and I’m pretty sure that some animal rights activists were involved trying to save poor Bambi.

I think I’ve made it pretty obvious that I love animals. I will also say that I hate death. I understand its necessary and it keeps me from being one of those crazy people who try to disrupt the ecosystem to save Bambi.  More than death, I hate suffering and that usually goes along with death, which makes death harder for me to handle period. But natural death is necessary. It provides nutrients and room for others to live. Even sickness and disease has its place because it weeds out the weak, tells us when there is a problem and is usually a symptom of overcrowding.

Natural death, which I define as how animals in the wild die when they are hunted by another animal or just death from old age, is the only kind of death that I will ever justify.  If people are going to eat meat no matter what then I guess hunting would be the best way, but people hunting is only natural if the humans are on even grounds. That means hunting like a caveman with only a bow and arrow, a spear made from trees in the forest or just your bare hands. Using a gun doesn’t make you natural just a coward. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you shouldn’t eat something if you can’t kill it and I can’t kill.

Gathering a bunch of cows in a pasture and locking them up doesn’t instill a great sense of courage to me either. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about whether vegetarianism is the right way to go. The books say that the animals that today are domesticated chose to become tamed because they understood that when they had a relationship with humans their race would always be protected. Let’s face it, cows, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, whatever else you can find at a pet store won’t be going extinct anytime soon. A mutual relationship they call it. They say the cow knew what it was giving up when it signed up. It’s been said that cows and chickens have become so domesticated that they couldn’t live without humans. How this happened, I don’t know, but I sure feel sorry for them. But if the whole agreeing to be domesticated idea is something you can believe, which I do, but still I couldn’t kill a cow myself, then I guess it may seem like wolves are the bad guys. But maybe for a second we could look at the people who hunt the deer. Could it be that maybe, just maybe they’re the problem? If people aren’t leaving enough deer for the wolves then what are the wolves supposed to eat? It’s just the thought. I don’t have enough information about the numbers to see if this is a possibility. I do know that after people killed enough wolves that the deer population started to destroy the vegetation. And because it suited us we allowed the wolves to do what wolves do and help curb back the deer population. Could it simply be that we don’t know what the heck we’re doing and we need to let nature do what nature does and stop trying to control it. Could it be that we’re supposed to live with nature and not try to be above it? Could it be that one predator without the other or one prey without the other just doesn’t work? I don’t know. Just some thoughts.

Getting Connected 4: Reptiles and Amphibians

As we make our way up the food chain, I hope we’re discovering just how important everything is. There are many groups that play the same role, but that doesn’t mean they’re not any less important that animals that have their own unique functions. Diversity is the key to ecosystem working.

Amphibians include salamanders, frogs, and toads. In phase of its life, frogs play a different role in the ecosystem. As tadpoles they tend to rely on plants. As they grow they lean towards small insects and as in adulthood they may even take on small rodents.

Reptiles include snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodilians. Unlike amphibians, reptiles have scaly, impermeable skin that does not need to stay moist. All reptiles use lungs to breathe.

Reptilian diet varies widely between groups and species and can include small vertebrates (such as birds, mice, and frogs), invertebrates (insects and crustaceans), and plants.

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/forestry/resources/publications/documents/ag744.pdf

As consumers of insects, rodents, and other pest species, herps (all reptiles and amphibians)  also provide a

significant benefit to agriculture and recreational activities. When abundant, amphibians can consume substantial quantities of favored prey organisms, perhaps serving to limit prey populations. For example, salamanders appear to play important roles in organizing many terrestrial and aquatic communities. The larvae of mole salamanders are top predators in vernal pond communities and influence the abundance and diversity of aquatic invertebrates and other amphibians therein. By serving as prey, herps provide food for small mammals, birds, and other herps. This website also has a small list of reptiles and amphibians and what they eat. At every point in their life they are responsible for maintaining the population of something and its everything from small insects to mice. Even though it’s not really a topic for this series of post, this website has some very good information on just how much we’re damaging their homes and their species.

http://directives.nrcs.usda.gov/OpenNonWebContent.aspx?content=18528.wba

In Wetlands, along with their other roles, amphibians and some reptiles are help in many ways. They help process dead organic matter and thereby making available detrital food chains. They modify the habitat to make it more homely for a more diverse and abundant population of fauna.

Because the smaller animals are so in tune with their environment, the existence or non-existence of these animals will tell us if our water is healthy.

http://el.erdc.usace.army.mil/elpubs/pdf/si22.pdf

These are just a few examples of how our environment would be affected without them.

Getting Connected 3: Birds and Spiders

As I said last time, I’m pretty much terrified of spiders. I knew that they were important in keeping the bug population down, but it wasn’t until my mom got her garden that it hit me. They really are important.

Squash beetles and cucumber beetles are destroying squash and cucumber plants in my mom’s beloved garden. I’d like to point out that my mom hasn’t used any pesticides since she got her garden. She uses other plants and nature’s method aka the natural ecosystem to keep pests in check. She got several vegetables from those plants before they died, but they still died before their time so it’s still irritating and she would appreciate it if it would stop happening.  Spiders she has noticed, she’s slightly unnerved by them too, seem to play a role in keeping plant life suckers at bay.

Because they use a web to catch their prey, spiders aren’t too choosy about what they eat, so they end up getting some of the good guys too.

Surprisingly I couldn’t find that much information about their role in the ecosystem that was a huge book or dissertation of some sort.  Or wikipedia, which certainly isn’t a source to be relied on. So with that being the case I’ll add birds to this post.

Birds are great and I totally love the hummingbird feeder that I made. We watch the hummingbirds while we eat and we have the most enjoyable time. If birds serve no other ecological purpose then I think they should get a fair amount of credit for bring delight into the world. How much worse off would humanity be if we didn’t have these amazing creatures to keep some people’s soul so harmonious? How much lonelier would we feel?

In any case luckily I don’t have to listen people’s opinions on how illogical that is because they do, in fact, have practical purposes.

Like most smaller creatures, birds are sensitive to their environment and therefore, help us to know when there is a problem. They help pollinate, control insect and rodent populations the natural way. Birds eat up to 98% of budworms and up to 40% of all non-outbreak insect species in eastern forests. These services have been valued at as much as $5000/year/square mile of forest (Robinson, 1997). Research in agricultural settings confirms what many farmers already know-birds help control agricultural pests. In orchards, birds seek out and destroy up to 98% of over-wintering codling moth larvae, a major pest of apples worldwide.

http://www.epa.gov/owow/birds/basics.html

On farms, birds are especially important. Cow manure contains seven essential enzymes necessary for bird digestion. On a real farm, a natural farm (the only natural thing we can do nowadays because we bred chickens and cows so much they became dependent on humans and most would die without us) the relationship between birds and herbivores, in this case chickens and cows, is essential because birds eat bugs. Bugs and parasites that come to eat the manure, are already in the manure and that bother the cows themselves.

Birds feed on other birds as is usually the case with predators. Reptiles, large cats if in the wild and small cats in community type settings.

Getting Connected 3: Insects

I have a confession.

I’m afraid of bugs.

And I’m terrified of spiders. This gathered more information than I thought it would, so spiders will be next time. Yay…

To be clear of the bugs, I’m really only afraid of them when they’re in large numbers, like five is the most I can handle, when I can imagine them in large numbers, when they’re big, what kind of bug it is will determine how big it has to be before it freaks me out, and if I know they can attack me like a grasshopper. Grasshoppers are a pretty neutral insect, but I definitely don’t want it on me.

I’m getting better about the spiders. I used just completely panic until I couldn’t even breathe, but then one time no one was home to save me and I had to face my fear.  More than anything I just have this feeling that they’re going to just jump up and attack me. I just don’t want them on me.

Just so you don’t think that I’m just a big ‘fraidy cat about everything, I’m going to tell you that I actually like snakes, frogs, lizards, you name it and I’m probably OK with it. There are some sea creatures that I’m a little apprehensive about running into, but that is most because of their sheer size. I’m pretty easily intimidated and just the thought of how puny I would be just makes me feel a bit overwhelmed.

Some people are just afraid of what they don’t know. Once they have a run in with their said phobia then they go on their merry way without a second thought. Sometimes all it takes is a little research and realize that a whale probably wouldn’t eat you or this or that snake isn’t poisonous makes people feel better. This does not apply to me.

Until I researched bees a few months back, I never really knew how important they were. Most bugs have a similar role in pollinating plants. I’ve always disliked ants (number factor) but I’ve found that even they have a purpose.

Insects, mostly, are very important in the ecosystem.  And here’s why:

Insects aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, and control other insect and plant pests; they also decompose dead materials, thereby reintroducing nutrients into the soil. Burrowing bugs such as ants and beetles dig tunnels that provide channels for water, benefiting plants (Ants also keep termite and flea populations down.) Bees play a major role in pollinating fruit trees and flower blossoms. Praying mantis because they control the size of certain insect populations, such as aphids and caterpillars, which feed on new plant growth. Finally, all insects fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their droppings.

If all the insects disappeared, life wouldn’t last more than a few months. Without bees we wouldn’t last longer than four years.

Many insects are herbivores, or plant-eaters, which makes them primary consumers. This abundance of primary consumers provides protein and energy for secondary consumers, known as carnivores. There are many secondary consumers, such as spiders, snakes, and toads that could not survive without feeding on insects. Tertiary consumers eat other carnivores; for example, bears and chimpanzees eat insects as well as other animals.

http://www.riverdeep.net/current/2002/03/030402t_insects.jhtml

Even termites and cockroaches will have their fifteen minutes of fame in this article. Granted, most people hate them, but that’s because we’ve plopped our fancy, dead wood filled houses right in the middle of their habitat. Termites enrich the soil by breaking down dead trees. Roaches help break down pretty much everything dead. Without them the rainforests would be smothered in decay.

And I think maybe my favorite ‘evil’ insect may now be the mosquito. As we know, mosquitos like damp areas like the tropics. Their bites which cause yellow fever and malaria, among other diseases, keep people away from these areas. People could never enter these places without getting sick. Without mosquitos it’s probably safe to say that the rainforests would have disappeared long ago. Also know that only female mosquitos bite. Males help pollinate. Some species only bite other animals and not humans at all.

Then there are the garden helpers. They keep harmful insects at bay and they’re especially important if you have a garden. These insects include ladybugs, can eat up to 50 aphids a day; praying mantis, assassin bugs (wouldn’t want to cross this fellow) eats flies, mosquitos and beetles; tiny braconid wasps lay eggs on tomato hornworms, eventually killing them as the larvae mature;  tachinid fly and the trichogramma wasp kill cabbage loppers and squash beetles. Cool, right?

http://curiosity.discovery.com/topic/everyday-science/10-most-important-insects10.htm

Not all insects are beneficial to us, but I think those insects let us know where are limits are. I don’t believe that humans were meant to scrounge around the earth looking to chop down whatever doesn’t suit us. We were meant to live in harmony with the Earth and if it takes a mosquito to put us in our place then so be it. If there is one thing this post was supposed to accomplish, it’s that we shouldn’t use pesticides. Let nature run its course. It knows what is best and sometimes that means that we can’t always have what we want, but we definitely won’t starve because we killed off the ones that we need to survive like the pollinators.

Getting Connected 2: Producers

Producers are at the very bottom of the food chain. They produce their own food, hence the word producer, by processing sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugar/glucose. The process is called photosynthesis. For this reason, they are the most essential thing on the planet. Without these humble life sustainers, there would be no other living thing on Earth. Everything we put in our mouth, in some form, came from a plant. Even totally carnivorous animals, such as lions, need plants because their prey are plant eaters.

Food isn’t the only reason why plants are vital. They act as filters for our soil, water and air. They give us air by converting the carbon dioxide that we breathe out into oxygen so we can breathe it back in. We couldn’t even breath with these things. They give us shelter. About 90 percent of homes today are made from wood whether for just the structure or the whole thing. Trees, even dead ones, can be homes for up to 1,000 different insect species. Small animals also make their homes in these trees.

http://continuingeducation.construction.com/article.php?L=5&C=645&P=1

Around one-fourth of our prescription medicine has some kind of plant origin. Native Americans used up to 2,000 plants species for medicine.

Ingredients for cosmetics often come from plants. As we also know corn has become an ingredient for everything. Aloe vera and jojaba are common ingredients in cosmetics as well.

Anytime humans are involved in any part of nature bad things happen.  Exotic species is a good example of this. Sometimes the species are introduced on purpose to help balance out the overpopulation of something else. This always ends badly. Sometimes they’re brought over by people who are traveling by boat or something. The rats that traveled by way of ship and brought the black plague with them is an example of this. Sometimes they’re introduced by idiots. Like the people who buy those exotic snakes and then they realize, like all living things, that snakes grow and then they release them into the wild. Even exotic species of plants are an overwhelming problem. Native species often don’t have the necessary strengths needed to compete with the exotic species so they’re overrun by them.

Habitat loss is the main problem. Animals and insects who mostly depend on plants for habitat, so if we cut it all down where are they supposed to go? It drives me nuts when people complain about animals in their yards or in their house because it’s like where else are they supposed to go? We’ve ruined just about every place they could go.

Recreational hobbies are a destructive force when it comes plant life. Bulldozing down the trees, digging up the grass to build a structure, even a small one, demolishes some kind of plant life. There is no way around it. Even something as insignificant as a blade of grass is important. Everything from football stadiums to a tennis court to the extra roads needed to get to that place will have an effect on the environment.

Why is grass so important? You’d be surprise. I know that I was when I learned that on a hot day a lawn of grass is 30 degrees cooler than asphalt and 14 degrees cooler than bare soil. Like other plants, it filters drain off, reduces erosion, absorbs noise, traps allergens and 2,500 square feet of lawn absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releases enough oxygen daily for a family of four to survive.

http://www.floridalawn.com/greengrass.html

It is also the main component of the diet for grazing animals, which we tend to like to eat. We may want to keep something around to feed them.

The bottom line is producers are essential. We should do more to protect them. Our survival depends on it.

Getting Connected 1

Every single living thing on this planet, in the universe is connected in one way or another. It would seem as people the more we use technology the farther we get from this concept. It’s becoming a concept so foreign that it seems impossible for people to grasp. We’re making decisions on a whim without a second thought of what destruction it causes.

As humans we have this fantasy that we can live without consequence that we don’t depend on anything, that we own everything, that everything lives for us.

Boy, we are mistaken about that. We can’t do anything but barely wipe drool from our chins. What? Just because we can though a couple of metals together, wire some wires and make some technology, which in the grand scheme of things is just about completely useless, we think we’re God? Technology is an impressive feat to be sure, but it doesn’t feed us, create life, well I guess it does now that we can create life in petri dish but even that, sooner or later, will become our demise. Humans can decide nothing that will not end up being our downfall.

So, how exactly are we all connected? It’s called ecology, the study of the interactions between all living and non-living things.

Ecology is organized into five basic levels.

The first level, the smallest level, is the individual. It is any living being.

The next level is the population. It is a group of individuals of a specific species that live together in a geographic location.

The community is then all the living beings of all species that live in a specific area.

The ecosystem refers to all non-living and living facts that live in a specific area.

And lastly, the biosphere is the part of the Earth that is inhabitable by any living thing.

Then there are the organisms and their different functions within the ecosystem and this is called the food chain.

It starts with the producers, which are plants. Producers get their energy from the sunlight. Consumers are the rest of the food chain.

Consumers that eat the plants are called primary consumers or herbivores. The animal or bird that eats the primary consumer is called a secondary consumer. The animal or bird that eats the secondary consumer is called a tertiary consumer. At each level energy is lost.

 

Carnivores only eat meat. They eat other animals. That makes them secondary or tertiary consumers.

Omnivores eat both plants and meat. So when a squirrel eats acorns or fruits, it is a primary consumer; but, when it eats insects or baby birds, it is a secondary consumer.

Decomposers are the cleanup crew of life. They’re just carnivores and herbivores that like their food already dead. Like maggots, bacteria, fungus, earthworms and other scavengers.

The food chain can also be displayed as a pyramid with the producers being at the bottom with the biggest population and the carnivores being at the top.

The loss of energy at each trophic level also explains why there are usually fewer organisms in each higher trophic level.  The total number of plants in a particular area would generally be higher than the number of herbivores that the plants support and the number of herbivores would be higher than the number of higher order carnivores.

All of this may seem trivial, something you learned in fourth grade and some of it kind of is, but it’s the basics and foundation of what I’ll be talking over the next few posts.