This lesson introduces and explains the ecological concept of a quaternary consumer. It discusses which organisms act as quaternary consumers and how this role can change within the environment. A lesson summary and brief quiz are included.
Definition of Quaternary Consumers
All organisms on this planet must obtain energy in order to survive. This is a fact of life as indisputable as gravity. But, how do they obtain this energy? Plants harness their energy from sunlight, while animals do something different. Animals eat things such as plants and other animals. Each of these animals fills a different role, and a select few fill the role of quaternary consumer. Quaternary consumers are typically carnivorous animals that eat tertiary consumers. Bu,t what is a tertiary consumer? Let’s clarify things with a picture.
To begin, turn your attention to the bottom of this image and the section called producers. Producers are organisms that use sunlight or chemical energy to create their own food. These are usually plants such as grass, algae, trees, etc.
Producers form the base of the food web you’re looking at right now.Now, in nature something inevitably consumes (eats) the producers. In the image, you’ll notice that small fish consume algae and aquatic plants. Those small fish are primary consumers.
Primary consumers are the organisms that consume producers. Have you ever eaten a salad? If so, you’ve filled the role of primary consumer by eating lettuce (a producer).If we continue up the food web, you’ll notice the next level belongs to secondary consumers.
Secondary consumers eat the primary consumers. In this diagram, you can see that organisms such as large fish and/or frogs will eat the smaller primary consumers. For a real-world example, people often fish for perch by using minnows as bait. Perch are a secondary consumer because they are eating the minnows, which are primary consumers.Next, we reach the tertiary consumers.
Tertiary consumers eat the secondary consumers and are represented by the snake, crane, duck, and sparrow in our image. Are you seeing a pattern here? Hopefully, you are. In which case it should be easy to understand that quaternary consumers are next in line. To revisit our previous definition, quaternary consumers eat tertiary consumers. Within the image, the hawk is the only quaternary consumer shown.
Types of Quaternary Consumers
Polar bears, hawks, wolves, lions, and sharks are all examples of organisms that function as quaternary consumers. That’s because quaternary consumers are usually top predators.
Even humans can be considered a quaternary consumer. Consider the fact that grass growing in a field could be eaten by an insect (a cricket), and that insect could then be consumed by predatory insects (ants) which are then eaten by a wild turkey. Did you have turkey last Thanksgiving? You may have been acting as a quaternary consumer.But wait; doesn’t eating a salad make you a primary consumer? In fact, it does. How can someone be both a primary consumer and quaternary consumer? Organisms can fill multiple roles depending on what they’re consuming. So, even though quaternary consumers are often top predators such as those mentioned above, they likely fluctuate between roles.
A polar bear that eats fish may be operating as a tertiary consumer, but if that same bear later consumes a seal that fed on the same type of fish, it’s probably acting as a quaternary consumer.
Some organisms such as plants use sunlight to create their own food. These organisms are called producers, and they form the base of any food chain, as organisms that use sunlight or chemical energy to create their own food. Basically, these are any plants that you can see. Organisms that eat the producers are known as primary consumers.
These primary consumers are fed upon by secondary consumers, and the secondary consumers are then eaten by tertiary consumers. Quaternary consumers are often top predators within the environment, and they eat the tertiary consumers. Examples of quaternary consumers include lions, wolves, polar bears, humans, and hawks. Organisms may operate under different roles, such as a bear that eats fish but also berries. By eating fish, the bear may acts as a secondary, tertiary, or quaternary consumer (depending on what the fish ate) and by eating berries it acts as a primary consumer.