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Decomposers are an often overlooked part of the natural world, but their job is an important one. Learn what decomposers are, what role they have in the environment and how people use them.

What are Decomposers?

Imagine this scene…

bodies are piled high, everything from birds and mammals to lizards and frogs. Mixed in are leaves, branches, feces, and even dead people. The stench is overwhelming. You try to turn away, but you are surrounded. It sounds like a horror movie, but at this show, you can’t even have a grilled cheese sandwich with a glass of wine while watching the horrors unfold.

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Where are you? In a world without decomposers.It may be unpleasant to think about, but decomposers do the natural world’s dirty work. They are responsible for eliminating dead and dying organisms, and in the process, they release nutrients into the soil.

Job Categories of Living Organisms

There are three categories of jobs that living organisms have in the environment. Producers are green plants that produce their own food using the sun’s energy.

Consumers need to eat other living things, such as plants or animals (or both), to get their energy. Decomposers have the job of ‘recycling’ dead organisms and waste into non-living elements.Examples of decomposers include bacteria, fungi, some insects, and snails, which means they are not always microscopic.

Fungi, such as the Winter Fungus, eat dead tree trunks.Decomposers can break down dead things, but they can also feast on decaying flesh while it’s still on a living organism. Dung beetles, as you may have accurately concluded from their name, break down feces from other animals. Some decomposers, like snails and worms, can also be consumers because they sometimes eat plants.

How Do Decomposers Work?

Often, when an animal dies, a scavenger, such as a vulture or hyena, will consume larger chunks of the body, but while scavengers do break down dead animals, they aren’t decomposers, because they’re not reducing the animal into chemicals that become part of the soil. Decomposers reduce dead animals, plants, and feces into chemicals such as nitrogen and carbon. Those chemicals become part of the soil and those nutrients can then be used by living plants and the animals that consume them.Soil is teaming with bacteria and fungi spores ready to spring into action when there is something to decompose. For plants, the rate of decomposition is highly dependent on moisture and temperature.

Generally, environments that are moister and warmer have much faster decomposition rates. A dead leaf in the tropics may last a matter of weeks while, in the arctic, it could last years.Usually, several types of decomposers work to break down an organism. In the case of dead leaves, for example, the first decomposers on the scene break down the easy-to-decompose parts of the leaves, such as sugars and amino acids.

The structural, tougher parts of the leaves, made of cellulose or lignin, are broken down by decomposers that arrive later.

How People Use Decomposers

For millennia, people have found ways for decomposers to work for us, some of which are delicious. For example, bacteria is used to ferment yogurt, cheeses, and sour cream. Yeast, which is a type of fungus, is used to help bread rise and to create the alcohol in wine.More recently, scientists have harnessed decomposers such as bacteria for bioremediation, cleaning up environmental damage, such as oil or chemical spills caused by people. Decomposers are being used in some wastewater treatment plants to make the water we have used in our homes clean and ready for human consumption again.

Scientists and engineers are using our knowledge of decomposers to develop biodegradable products made of various plant materials that can be broken down by decomposers so that they won’t linger in the environment.

Lesson Summary

So, although decomposers are rather small and unglamorous, they play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead organisms and feces and turning them into soil nutrients that can be used by living plants. And, beyond their role as nature’s clean-up crew, people have found ways to use them to produce some of our foods and to naturally clean up some of the damage we do to the environment.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have finished, you should be able to:

  • Outline the role of decomposers
  • List the three job categories of living organisms
  • Name some examples of decomposers
  • Summarize how a living organism is broken down into soil nutrients
  • Explain how humans use decomposers
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