Secondary Consumers: Types, Food Chain, Examples, Roles

Secondary consumers are a distinct group of consumers within the trophic system positioned at the third trophic level. They get their energy by consuming primary consumers. They use the energy derived from plants consumed by the primary consumers.

All living organisms in an ecosystem need energy to live. In all ecosystems, organisms feed on each other to obtain energy. This network of feeding relationships between organisms in an ecosystem is represented by food chains and energy pyramids. These charts help us understand how energy flows between organisms and show the relationships between predator and prey in an environment. They also help us understand how everything in an ecosystem is connected. 

In a food chain, organisms are placed in different trophic levels based on their roles in the ecosystem. These trophic levels form a pyramid that illustrates the movement of energy from the producers at the bottom to the consumers up to the top of the pyramid. The energy from the primary producers is transferred through the food chain to different trophic levels, including primary consumers, secondary consumers, and eventually decomposers.

Secondary Consumers
Secondary Consumers

What are Secondary Consumers?

Secondary consumers can be defined as a group of living organisms that mainly feed on primary consumers or herbivores to get energy. They are placed on the third trophic level in a food chain.

  • Some secondary consumers also feed on both producers and primary consumers. So, secondary consumers range from carnivores that consume meat to omnivores that consume both meat and plants.
  • They adopt a heterotrophic mode of nutrition, feeding on both primary producers and primary consumers.
  • Secondary consumers provide a vital food source for tertiary consumers and organisms in the upper trophic level.
  • Secondary consumers form a link between herbivores and top-level predators in the food chain.
  • The role of secondary consumers is important in maintaining the energy flow within the ecosystem. By consuming primary consumers, they help in the transfer of energy to higher trophic levels.

Secondary Consumers in the Tropic Pyramid

  • Secondary consumers play a crucial role in the trophic pyramid. The trophic pyramid is a visual representation of the distribution of energy and biomass and consists of different trophic levels, with each level representing a step in the food chain.
  • Secondary consumers are positioned at the third trophic level, above primary consumers and below tertiary consumers.
  • The energy flow in the trophic pyramid begins with producers, such as plants, which convert energy from sunlight into organic compounds through photosynthesis. 
  • Primary consumers or herbivores consume the producers, and energy is then transferred to secondary consumers when they prey on herbivores. 
  • However, this energy transfer follows the 10% rule, where only approximately 10% of the energy is passed from one trophic level to the next.

Types of Secondary Consumers

Secondary consumers can be divided into two types: carnivores and omnivores. Whether they are carnivores or omnivores, secondary consumers play a vital part in the trophic structure, contributing to the balance of the ecosystem.

What are Carnivores?

Carnivores are animals that primarily eat other animals, and the term is derived from the Latin words meaning “meat eater.” Carnivores contain various types, including obligate carnivores, such as cats, which rely solely on animal flesh, and facultative carnivores, like dogs, which consume both animal and non-animal food. Carnivores can be animals, plants (such as the Venus flytrap), or fungi that trap and consume small organisms. Some other examples of carnivorous secondary consumers include lions, tigers, snakes, sharks, spiders, and seals.

What are Omnivores?

Omnivores are a group of organisms that are characterized by their ability to consume both plant-based and animal-derived food. The term is derived from the Latin words meaning “everything” which explains the broad dietary spectrum of omnivores.  They are versatile organisms that consume a diverse range of materials, including plants, animals, algae, and fungi. This dietary flexibility is evident across various species, from tiny insects like ants to larger creatures such as humans. Most birds, many mammals, some reptiles, and even fish and insects exhibit omnivorous behavior. Some of the examples of omnivores are humans, bears, raccoons, chickens, cockroaches, and crayfish.

Examples of Secondary Consumers

Examples of secondary consumers showcase a diverse range of organisms that inhabit almost every corner of the Earth. Regardless of whether they reside on land or in water, they share a similarity in their dietary preferences for primary consumers. Some of the examples of secondary consumers are:

  • Carnivorous mammals like lions, tigers, hyenas, wolves, leopards, and cheetahs are secondary consumers found in terrestrial ecosystems that prey on herbivores for survival.
  • Birds of prey or predatory birds such as eagles, vultures, falcons, hawks, and owls are secondary consumers that hunt other animals. 
  • Large fish like sharks, piranhas, and barracudas are aquatic secondary consumers that feed on smaller fish and other marine organisms. Other secondary consumers in the ocean ecosystem include marine mammals like dolphins, seals, walruses, and sea lions.
  • Reptiles like snakes and certain lizard species are also secondary consumers that consume smaller animals. 

Importance of Secondary Consumers

  • Secondary consumers are an important part of the food chain in the ecosystem. The presence and abundance of secondary consumers contribute to biodiversity within an ecosystem. 
  • Secondary consumers help to control the populations of primary consumers, preventing the overgrazing of vegetation.
  • Secondary consumers help maintain the balance of energy within an ecosystem. Through the food chain, energy is transferred from one trophic level to another. Their absence would result in the loss of energy at the primary consumer level, leading to the collapse of the entire ecosystem.
  • Secondary consumers serve as a vital food source for tertiary consumers and other organisms at the upper trophic level.
  • Secondary consumers also participate in nutrient cycling. They get essential nutrients, like nitrogen, from primary consumers. These nutrients are important for plant growth and go back to the soil when the secondary consumer decomposes.
  • Secondary consumers contribute to the preservation of ecosystems by controlling the population of invasive species.

References

  1. Carnivore (nationalgeographic.org)
  2. Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
  3. Flournoy, Blake. (2023, December 18). Define Secondary Consumer. sciencing.com. Retrieved from https://sciencing.com/define-secondary-consumer-5530919.html
  4. Food Chain (nationalgeographic.org)
  5. Omnivore (nationalgeographic.org)
  6. Secondary Consumer – Definition and Examples | Biology Dictionary
  7. Secondary Consumers | Definition, Types and Examples (ibiologia.com)
  8. What are Secondary Consumers in Ecology? Examples in Food Chain (jotscroll.com)
  9. What Are Secondary Consumers? – WorldAtlas

About Author

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Sanju Tamang

Sanju Tamang completed her Bachelor's (B.Tech) in Biotechnology from Kantipur Valley College, Lalitpur, Nepal. She is interested in genetics, microbiome, and their roles in human health. She is keen to learn more about biological technologies that improve human health and quality of life.

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