Ecology Consumer: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:02 What Are Consumers?
  • 0:20 Primary Consumers
  • 1:50 Secondary Consumers
  • 3:26 Tertiary Consumers
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jeffrey Sack

Jeff is a Biology teacher and has a Doctorate in Educational Leadership

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

This lesson will discuss the role of consumers in an ecosystem. It will describe their place in a food chain and how they interact with other organisms. Specific types of consumers will be presented.

What are Consumers?

The dictionary defines a consumer as 'one who acquires goods and services.' While this explanation is more of a description for how people buy and use products, it also relates to the animal kingdom. Consumers are those organisms that get their energy from eating other organisms. eat other. They may eat plants or they may eat animals.

Primary Consumers

At the bottom of every food chain and food web are the producers. These are organisms like plants and algae that make their own energy by using the sun. In a food chain, the first step after the producers are the primary consumers. These are the animals that eat producers. They are usually herbivores and range in size from the smallest of insects, such as the leaf beetle to the largest land mammal, the elephant.

What They Eat

Primary consumers get their energy from eating plants and algae directly. Some of them have large, dull, flat teeth to help them grind and chew plant matter. Many also have special bacteria living within their intestines to help them break down cellulose (a large sugar that is found in cell walls of plants).

Insects are the most numerous primary consumers on Earth. They are well adapted for getting their energy from the parts of the plant they eat. Some, like the grasshopper, eat the entire plant. Caterpillars, on the other hand, eat just the leaves. There are also certain beetles that bore into the stem of the plant and just eat the fibers that make it up. There are other insects that eat just the roots.

Some primary consumers are called specialists. These are animals that eat only one kind of plant or plant product. For example, the giant panda (Figure 1) eats only leaves and shoots of bamboo, termites eat only wood, and hummingbirds eat only the nectar made within flowers. Each of these animals is getting the energy it needs from consuming a producer, or a part of a producer.

Figure 1. Giant Panda Eating Bamboo
Giant Panda eating bamboo

Figure 2. Zebras

Secondary Consumers

Animals that eat other animals are called secondary consumers. These are carnivores. They eat meat. Unlike the primary consumers, which do not have to search very hard for food, the secondary consumers need to hunt. These animals are often called predators because they hunt down and kill the food they eat. The prey they eat may be herbivores, or other secondary consumers.

When it comes to food choice, most predators are not fussy. They will eat whatever meat they can find. Lions will eat antelope, zebra, or water buffalo (Figure 3). Sharks will eat squid, fish, and seals. As long as the prey animal will provide enough energy for the predator, it will be on the menu of a secondary consumer.

Figure 3. Feeding Lion
Feeding Lion

Many secondary consumers have teeth that are used for ripping and tearing of flesh. These teeth can be sharp for biting or flat for tearing. When a predator makes a kill, it often uses its mouth for attack. Its sharp canines puncture the flesh of the prey, bringing it down. It will then use the tearing teeth to tear the meat from the body.

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Additional Activities

Consumers in Your Habitat

Although many of us live in cities or suburbs, these areas were once wild ecosystems. If we drive far enough out of the city, we'll catch a glimpse of that as well! In this real-world application, you are going to discover the consumers of your local ecosystem and arrange them into a food web. Then, you will use pictures of these organisms to create a digital or physical poster of the food web. For example, a common food chain in the deciduous forest might look like this:

Grass -> Rabbits -> Snakes -> Hawks

Your food chain will be more complex, because you'll need to include multiple producers and consumers. Check out the criteria for success, follow the steps below to complete your food web, then answer the questions.

Criteria For Success

  • Food web is colorful and attractive
  • Food web includes organisms connected with arrows to represent who eats who
  • Food web includes four producers, three primary consumers, two secondary consumers, and one tertiary consumer with pictures and descriptions


  1. Start by researching what ecosystem you are a part of. Many cities in the American Northeast are deciduous forest, whereas cities in the American Southwest are desert.
  2. Once you know what ecosystem you are a part of, start by looking up the producers. What plants are part of the ecosystem? Find at least four different producers in your ecosystem and include them on your poster. For each organism give its name and description. For example, you might include the Saguaro cactus in a desert ecosystem.
  3. Next, do the same thing with the consumers. Find at least three primary consumers, two secondary consumers and one tertiary consumer in the environment. Include each of these with a description of their role in the ecosystem. For example, in the desert ecosystem you might include a kangaroo rat as a primary consumer.


  1. What organisms were present in the highest numbers in your ecosystem? Why do you think that is?
  2. How do you think humans play a role in this ecosystem? How do we interact with consumers and producers?
  3. What is something new that you learned about the ecosystem you live in? Would this change your behavior towards the environment at all? Why or why not?

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