In this lesson, we'll cover what a wetland is and where you can find them. We'll also look at food chains and go over two specific examples of wetland food chains and why they are important.
Boating in the Wetlands
Imagine hurdling down a narrow water way in an air boat. Giant fans propel you forward as you zoom through the reeds. Tall brush creates a barrier on either side of the waterway. Today, you're out here to find some American alligators. These beautiful beasts live only in the wetlands, and you're hoping to see them from a safe distance on your air boat! You're in luck because your guide is a local and knows all about what the alligators eat, and if anything eats them! This knowledge he bestows on you is about the wetlands food chain. Even though we're not really on an air boat today, we can get a glimpse into the food chain of the American alligator in this lesson.
What Is a Food Chain?
To understand the wildlife of the wetlands, we need to get some food chain basics under our belt. A food chain is a diagram that shows the linear transfer of energy between species in an ecosystem. The energy is transferred in the form of food, so a food chain basically just shows what eats what in a particular place.
The food chain is organized into levels called trophic levels. The bottom trophic level is the producers. Producers make their own food and supply all the energy for the ecosystem. Next, primary consumers are herbivores, or vegetarians, which only eat the producers. Then, carnivores, known as secondary consumers, eat the primary consumers. At the very top of the food chain are the tertiary consumers. These top predators eat both primary and secondary consumers and keep the food chain in balance.
What Is a Wetland?
Wetlands are an area where the land and soil are flooded nearly year round with water. The water may be fresh water from a river or salt water like in the Gulf Coast of the United States. This very unique habitat supports many species of fish and birds that are found in no other areas. Today, we'll look at two specific wetlands, the Everglades of the Gulf Coast and the wetlands of Africa.
Alligator Food Chain
The American alligator lives in the Everglades of the southeastern United States. Weighing up to 1,000 pounds and stretching 15 feet in length, it's easy to see how this giant has been around for over 65 million years. Once endangered, the American alligator has made a come back in the United States due to preservation efforts.
The jaws of an alligator easily cut through primary and secondary consumers. It preys on large turtles, easily breaking their shells, as well as snakes, fish, and mammals that come to the water to drink. Secondary consumers, like turtles, eat smaller fish. The small fish in the wetlands feed on reeds in the water or phytoplankton, which are microscopic producers in the water.
Hippopotamus Food Chain
Traveling across the globe to Africa, we find the wetlands where the hippopotamus lives. Although the American alligator may seem like a mammoth, it dwarfs in comparison to the hippo. Hippos can reach 8,000 pounds and easily span 14 feet in length.
Despite their size, hippos are vegetarians, or primary consumers. They eat grasses and reeds near the water's edge if available but will travel long distances at night inland to find a suitable food source. However, these giants are anything but gentle. Their canine teeth are over 20 inches in length, and they frequently battle each other—and even humans—if they feel threatened. Hippos have few predators, but as they grow up, crocodiles are a secondary consumer threat. Occasionally, lions act as a tertiary consumer, taking down both crocodiles and hippos when hungry enough.
Importance and Threats
Wetlands are important sources of biodiversity. Many species survive here and nowhere else. Wetlands also help reduce the impact of climate change. Areas rich in plants, such as the wetlands, help to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, decreasing the effects of global warming. Wetlands are also important sources for water purification and buffer floods and changes in water levels.
However, wetlands are currently threatened by human activities such as encroachment on land for agriculture and pollution. For example, the devastating oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon in 2006, wrecked the wetlands of the Gulf Coast for many years to come. In addition, invasive species are a problem in some areas. An invasive species is a species that is not native to an area and out-competes local species. In the Florida Everglades, humans have released Burmese pythons once kept as pets. The pythons are competing with the alligators as prey, sometimes even hunting the alligators themselves.
In summary, a food chain is a diagram of the linear transfer of energy between species. All food chains start with producers, which make their own food. Primary consumers eat producers, and secondary consumers eat primary consumers. Tertiary consumers eat both primary and secondary consumers and control the food chain.
Wetlands are areas of flooded land near a body of water, which occur all over the globe. In the Gulf Coast, alligators are a top predator, consuming secondary consumers like turtles. The turtles eat fish, which eat producers like phytoplankton in the water. African wetlands are home to secondary consumers, like crocodiles. Crocodiles feed on hippos, which are primary consumers, eating only grasses and reeds near the water. Lions control the food chain in this area as tertiary consumers.
Despite their importance in regulating water levels, purity, and buffering climate change, wetlands are threatened by human activities like agriculture, pollution, and invasive species.