There are many different types of animals in a food chain, and each one has a specific job to fulfill in order to keep the balance. There are producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, tertiary consumers, and decomposers. In this article we’re looking at the different types of decomposers along with some examples of each.
First let’s learn exactly what a decomposer actually is, their role in the food chain, and why they’re so important to an ecosystem.
What is a decomposer?
A decomposer is an insect, invertebrate, fungi, bacteria, or organism that breaks down dead organic matter. Most types of decomposers are microscopic, but many we see everyday and don’t even realize it.
By eating the dead organic matter left by consumers and recycling it, the decomposers provide important nutrients the soil needs for the producers.
Since the producers feed the consumers, and the producers need the decomposers to thrive, it makes the decomposers a crucial part of a food chain. I know, it gets confusing. Take a look at the diagram below.
Why are decomposers important?
It’s clear at this point that decomposers play an important role in their ecosystems. We told you above that decomposers break down organic material, and kind of recycle it which provides important nutrients for the soil and then the producers. All life in an ecosystem is part of multiple food chains, which make up something called a food web.
In order to function, the entire food web relies on decomposers doing their job and returning those nutrients back into the cycle. Which lets the producers grow and feed the consumers. So yeah, decomposers are quite important to an ecosystem.
Types of decomposers with examples
Fungi is a spore producing organism that breaks down dead, organic material. They are classified in a separate kingdom from all other types of animals and organisms. Fungi is common on the forest floor where it is vital to a healthy forest ecosystem.
Some examples of fungi are mushrooms, toadstools, molds, and mildews. Here’s a little bit more about how each of these types of fungi are important to their ecosystems.
Unlike plants, mushrooms have no chlorophyll, so they’re unable to produce their own food. Like other fungi, mushrooms release special enzymes that decompose dead animal and plant material.
Edible mushrooms are one of the most common ways that humans eat fungi. Though another example of a fungus that we eat is yeast when we make bread or beer.
Mushrooms grow when the conditions are just right, wherever that may be. Once mushrooms find a suitable place to colonize, they will continue to spread through their spores. Mushrooms growing can be a sign that something is dead or decaying.
This decomposer is a single celled fungi known as yeast. It’s found throughout nature all over the world, but mainly on plant leaves, flowers, and fruits, and in the soil. Yeast is very common in sugary things such as flower nectar and fruits. People use yeast everyday when making bread, brewing beer, biofuel, and probiotics.
Mold is another organism that’s classified as a fungi, making it another good example of a decomposer. This decomposer can commonly be seen in our own kitchens if we leave a loaf of bread sitting out too long. The mold starts to grow in spots letting us know that it’s time to toss it in the trash or compost. So in that case we can see that mold loves to grow on starches and sugars.
Mold also loves moisture and can be seen growing in the soil, plants and dead or decaying matter as well in and around our own homes. Exposure to certain types of molds is known to be harmful to people, but as a decomposer it does play an import role in many ecosystems. Large mold colonies can be seen with the naked eye, but mold spores cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope.
Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled microbes, that make up the majority of decomposers as a whole. These organisms are considered microfauna because they are less than 0.1mm in size and exhibit animal-like behavior. Since they are never seen and referred to by their scientific names, most are unknown outside the scientific community.
Here are a couple of examples of bacteria that act as decomposers.
Also known as hay bacillus or grass bacillus, bacillus subtilis is a bacteria found in soil and also in the gastrointestinal tracts of all mammals and humans.
This bacteria thrives in warmer climates mainly between 77 and 86 degrees. Pseudomonas fluorescens is found in soils, plants, sewage, feces, and water. This bacteria is considered non-pathogenic and non-harmful to humans.
Invertebrates are animals that do not have backbones, such as a mollusk or an arthropod. A small percentage of invertebrates, are decomposers. These are the types of decomposers that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, and some of them are seen more often than we realize. Invertebrates that are decomposers are also known as detritivores.
Below I’ll give you some examples of decomposers that fall under the invertebrates group of animals, most of which you’ve probably heard of. I tried to include a variety of examples from within the invertebrates group.
It’s pretty commonly known by gardeners that earthworms are good for your soil. That’s because earthworms are decomposers that are constantly hard at work breaking down dead plant and animal material. Their waste releases nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus back into the soil that allow plants to grow healthy.
The name “millipede” may insinuate that these invertebrates have one thousand legs, but it isn’t true. Many common species of millipedes may have 300-400 legs or less, which is still a lot. Much in the same way as earthworms, millipedes act as decomposers by breaking down organic matter on the forest floor and redepositing it back into the soil which provides the producers with much needed nutrients.
Dead wood-eating beetles
Dead wood-eating beetles are some of the best decomposers and recyclers of wood in nature. These beetles identify dead or dying trees and lay their eggs on them. the larvae then burrow into the wood and begin eating away at the dead wood. They eventually emerge and become adult beetles, at which point they mate and start eh process over.
Since they specifically target wood and dead wood makes up a large percentage of dead organic material in many ecosystems, it makes dead wood-eating beetles especially important to a food chain.
Maggots need no introduction, they’re fly larvae. They appear whenever a fly lands on something gross and lays eggs on it, and the environment was suitable for the eggs to hatch. This could be rotting meat in the trash or from a dead animal. In a compost pile, maggots will help to break down the organic material faster.
Snails are in the mollusk family, which is the second largest phylum of invertebrates after arthropods. While they don’t play as big of a role in the ecosystem as some other types of decomposers, snails still fall into the category and thus made this list. Snails are unique in that they have adapted to eat just about anything making them omnivorous and detritivorous.
Like the snail, a slug is a terrestrial gastropod in the mollusk family that will eat just about anything. This also makes a slug an omnivore and a detritivore. Since they are detritivorous, they will eat dead things and recycle it back into the soil which makes them decomposers.
Every time you turn over a stone you can count on seeing dozens of these little guys. Pill bugs are mini-scavengers that feed primarily on decaying plant material. When I was growing up we referred to these pill bugs as “rolly pollies”. They like dark, moist environments which is why you can typically find them hiding under something.
Another type of common arthropodic decomposer is the ant. Ants are omnivores and detritivores and will eat just about anything. Like other scavengers that are decomposers, they consume everything until it’s gone and return the nutrients back into the soil.
Here are some animals that eat ants.
Centipedes are considered to be a decomposer, but they are actually predators. They are only part of the decomposer group because they eat other decomposer invertebrates which helps control the population. So they contribute to the decomposing process as a whole.
Termites are important decomposers to any ecosystem, unless it’s one that’s in your house. They are able to break down hard plant material very rapidly and recycle dead trees back into the soil. There are records of termites dating back over 100 million years so this little decomposer has been around for a long, long time.
Moss is the only decomposer that I could find that is both a producer and a decomposer. There are many different types of moss that grow in a variety of places and ecosystems, but typically moss sticks to damp and dark places. It’s often found growing on dead and decaying logs or trees.
It uses photosynthesis to produce its own food, but also is able to break down dead plant material. As a producer, moss is also food for consumers.
Here is a list of different types of moss.