Student Question

What happens if a tertiary consumer is removed from a food chain?

Quick answer:

If a tertiary consumer (a predator that eats primary and secondary consumers) is removed from a food chain, that chain can easily fall out of balance. The populations of primary and secondary consumers as well as producers can rise or fall dramatically without the control provided by tertiary consumers.

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Before we talk about the removal of tertiary consumers from the food chain, we had better review the nature and components of a food chain. At the bottom stand the producers, those organisms like plants, algae, and some bacteria that make their own food through photosynthesis or other such processes. The next step up contains the primary consumers that eat the producers. These are herbivores like rabbits and cows. Then we move up to secondary consumers that eat the primary consumers. These secondary consumers are carnivores or sometimes omnivores (who eat producers like plants as well as other animals).

Now we come to the tertiary consumers. These usually stand at the top of the food chain as the top predators. They eat secondary consumers (and primary consumers and sometimes producers). Examples of tertiary consumers are wolves and big cats like tigers, lions, and jaguars. These animals rarely become prey for other animals.

Tertiary consumers are very important for the life of the food chain, for they control the populations of the secondary and primary consumers below them. Let's imagine what would happen if all the tertiary consumers in one chain somehow died out.

We'll use the example of a hawk as tertiary consumer. With no more hawks to regulate the population of foxes, foxes what soon diminish the population of rabbits. Without rabbits to clear some of the producer plants, those could grow unchecked in some areas and choke each other off. We can see, then, how tertiary consumers help maintain balance in a given food chain and ecosystem.

Let's look at one more example. Wolves are tertiary consumers that help control the population of deer. If the wolves were gone, the deer population could grow exponentially. These deer would seriously diminish the producers in their territory, which could lead to a lack of food as well as increased starvation and disease over time.

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What happens if an animal is removed from the food chain?

The food chain depends on a delicate balance of nature, when one organism is removed that delicate balance can be affected in a number of ways. The prey/predator relationships change. Removal of a predator causes overpopulation of prey. In areas where bobcats and wolves neared extinction, the deer population increased exponentially. This put stress on vegetation that the deer feed on.

If the loss of an organism is caused by environmental factors, the balance again can be tipped. When sharks move north along the East Coast due to the warming of ocean waters, the seal population is decreased as the sharks move into their territory, feeding on them faster than they can reproduce. In addition, the opposite can occur.The loss of an organism can cause a change in the environment in a geographic area due to over or undergrowth of the native vegetation that served as a food source for that species. This phenomenon is evident in the layers of the rainforest.

The removal of an animal of a specific species can reduce the biodiversity of the whole species once again reducing the food chain for those who depend on that species for food. When biological changes occur in a species, the animals who feed on that species have to adapt their eating habits or perish.

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What would happen if one element of a food chain were removed?

A food chain is a pictorial diagram which shows all the organisms involved in a feeding progression upon each other. Pictures of the organisms and directional arrows are used to show the flow of the energy within the food chain. Many times, there is more than one arrow flowing from one organism to another, indicating multiple sources of energy for the dependent organism to which the energy is flowing. A food source is lost when an element is removed. The organisms to which the energy was flowing must compensate by consuming more of the other sources of energy, or coming up with another new food source. If the organism only had the one element flowing to it, the one that was removed, it would have to develop a new diet or move to another area that contained the element it was used to consuming.

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