This lesson covers producers and consumers in biology. We'll discuss what producers and consumer are and consider examples of each in different ecosystems.
Producers vs. Consumers
You may have heard the word 'consumer' in everyday life. Chances are good that you think of shoppers as consumers, people who buy goods. Producers might come to mind as factories and people who make the goods.
Although the specifics are a slightly different, in biology the same general idea applies. Since biology concerns life, producers and consumers are living things, or organisms. Producers make the food for the rest of us, and since we consume that food, we're called consumers. Let's look more closely at each of these types of organisms.
What Are Producers in Biology?
Producers are organisms that make their own food; they are also known as autotrophs. They get energy from chemicals or the sun, and with the help of water, convert that energy into useable energy in the form of sugar, or food. The most common example of a producer are plants. Through a process called photosynthesis, green plants use sunlight and water and make a type of sugar called glucose. Green plants such as trees are found on land, but they can also exist underwater as long as there is enough sunlight.
Although algae look like a plant, they're actually a special kind of single-celled organism called a protist. A protist's cellular structure is different from a plant's, but it can still make its own food and, therefore, it is a producer. Algae and its relatives can be found in aquatic ecosystems.
Surprisingly, single-celled bacteria can also be producers. Located deep below the ocean surface are areas that get little to no sunlight. Green plants can't survive there, since they are unable make food without sunlight. But, single-celled bacteria use a process to make food called chemiosynthesis, which involves taking chemicals expelled from hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean and converting them into the same type of food that plants make.
The food producers create food for themselves in order to grow and reproduce. However, plants also serve as food for the rest of the ecosystem, the consumers.
What Are Consumers in Biology?
Consumers are organisms that need to eat (i.e. consume) food to obtain their energy. These organisms are called heterotrophs, meaning they must eat something else (hetero) as food. When we think of things eating for energy, our minds probably drift to animals, like birds, cats, or insects. These are all examples of consumers, but there are other lesser-known ones as well.
Fungi, or mushrooms, may look like plants, but they are actually heterotrophs. They extend tiny tubes into other living or dead organisms and literally suck the nutrients right out of them! The mold that you see on strawberries is actually a fungus. It's eating the strawberries as they rest on your counter.
Single-celled organisms can also be consumers. The amoeba is just a single cell, but it chases after other microscopic prey, engulfing it for food. Bacteria in the soil act as decomposers, consuming dead material and breaking it down to be recycled back into the food chain.
Example of an Ecosystem
Let's look at how producers and consumers interact in a specific ecosystem: the temperate forest. The temperate forest spans the globe in a band towards the northern United States. These lush forests are filled with broad-leafed trees and animals. The producers in this ecosystem are numerous. All green plants, such as grasses, moss, ferns, and maple trees produce the food needed for the rest of the organisms.
Consumers can actually be divided into different levels:
Primary consumers eat only producers. These are animals such as deer, rabbits, chipmunks, or squirrels that are found in the forest.
Secondary consumers like birds, lizards, snakes and weasels eat the primary consumers.
Lastly, the tertiary consumers eat the secondary and primary consumers. These animals include owls, hawks, foxes, and coyotes that are found in the forest.
In summary, producers are organisms that make their own food. Producers create food for themselves and also provide energy for the rest of the ecosystem. Any green plant, like a tree or grass, as well as algae and chemosynthetic bacteria, can be producers.
Consumers are organisms that need to eat to obtain energy. Primary consumers, such as deer and rabbits, eat only producers. Secondary consumers (such as a weasel or snake) eat the primary consumers. And tertiary consumers, like barn owls, eat both primary and secondary consumers. Consumers can also be single-celled, like with decomposing bacteria or amoebae. Although fungi may look like plants, they are actually consumers, too, sucking energy from living or dead organisms.
Producers v. Consumers
All ecosystems are composed of consumers and producers.
*Create their own food
*Use photosynthesis or chemiosynthesis to create food
*Include plants, algae, and chemosynthetic bacteria
*Can be single or multi-celled organisms
*Need to eat to obtain energy
*Characterized in three levels: primary (herbivores), secondary (eat the primary), and tertiary (eat the primary and secondary)
*Can be single or multi-celled organisms
Upon completing this lesson on producers and consumers, assess your ability to:
- Distinguish between consumers and producers
- Provide examples of each
- Examine a temperate forest as an example of an ecosystem