Several years ago my son came home from a hike and shared with me a picture of a lizard he found. After a bit of quick detective work we identified it as an Oregon Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata scincicauda). Coincidentally, I was engaged in doing coursework to become an Oregon Master Naturalist. We were currently studying the Fundamentals of Ecology and were given an assignment to create a food web for any given species. What you see below is the food web I created for the Oregon Alligator Lizard.
- Food Chain: A linear system showing a succession of organisms whereby each species is eaten in turn by another species.
- Food Web: A graphic model showing many food chains linked together to depict the feeding relationship of organisms in an ecosystem.
- Apex Predators: The predator at the top of a food chain that is not preyed upon by any other animal.
- Keystone Species: A species that has a large impact on its environment relative to its abundance. It plays a critical role in a food web by determining the types and numbers of various other species in the ecosystem. Without the keystone species, an ecosystem would be drastically different or collapse. Keystone species are sometimes, but not always, apex predators.
- Trophic Levels: Describes the hierarchy in a food web which groups organisms based on the same number of steps removed from the primary producers.
The Oregon Alligator Lizard is a subspecies of the Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinara). It is a reptile native to the Pacific Coast of North America from Washington state to Baja California. This species has adapted to many diverse habitats however it is partial to foothill oak woodlands. Although it is listed by the IUCN Red List as “least concern” it is still a declining species due to habitat loss. It is carnivorous and feeds on a wide variety of prey — basically anything it can get it’s mouth on. They are also known to be cannibalistic, eating their own young, or adult males and females eating each other. This has been demonstrated in my food web diagram by the arrow going from and pointing to the lizard.
Cannibalism is an interesting, if somewhat disturbing, ecological interaction between species. It has been recorded in more than 1,500 species. Not unexpectedly, cannibalism increases in environments where other usual food sources are not meeting the needs of individuals. However, there are other reasons why individuals of a species may turn to cannibalism: as a way to regulate population numbers and increase access to necessary resources (shelter, territory, food), and increased mating opportunities. A feedback loop occurs when cannibalism decreases a species population density to the point where it becomes more beneficial to forage in the environment for other food sources than for cannibalism to occur.
A food chain refers to a succession of organisms in an ecological community where each organism is dependent on the next as a source of food. The basic food chain for the Alligator lizard would look like this:
Hawk —> Snake —> rodent —> Alligator lizard —> cricket —> vegetation
A food web is made up of a complex of interconnected food chains. Organisms in a food web are grouped into trophic levels. The basic trophic level categories are Producers, Consumers, and Decomposers.
Producers, or autotrophs, make up the first trophic level — they make their own food and do not depend on other organisms for nutrition. In my food web example, the plants and algae are the autotrophs.
Consumers are categorized as follows:
- Primary consumers are herbivores (plant eaters). They are considered to be at the second trophic level. In my food web the insects, tadpoles, and snails/slugs are part of the second trophic level.
- Secondary consumers eat herbivores. They are at the third trophic level. In my food web, the spiders, alligator and other lizards are part of the third trophic level.
- Tertiary consumers eat secondary consumers. They are at the fourth trophic level. In my food web, the snakes, wolves, hawks and owls are in the fourth trophic level.
- There may be additional trophic levels of consumers before a food chain reaches it’s top predator — the apex predator. Apex predators have no natural enemies except humans. In my food web, the eagle is the apex predator.
Decomposers complete the food web by eating non-living plant and animal remains. They turn organic waste into inorganic material thereby returning nutrients to the soil or ocean for use by autotrophs to begin a new food chain. In my food web, the fungi, algae, and ground beetles are all decomposers. Beetles are actually considered both consumers and decomposers.
It makes sense to think of a food web as it relates to an ecosystem. Some examples of ecosystems include a forest, desert, marine, tundra, grassland, coral reef. My food web example would be part of a freshwater ecosystem. Food webs are defined by their collective biomass, or the available energy in the living organisms. The web’s biomass decreases with each trophic level; there are more autotrophs than herbivores, more herbivores than carnivores, and relatively few apex predators. This allows the ecosystem to remain in balance and recycle biomass.
Every link in a food web is connected to at least two others. When one link in the food web is broken, particularly if there is a decrease or extinction of a keystone species, the entire food web is weakened or may collapse all together. Habitat loss is often a culprit in the weakening of food webs. Consider the decline in the salmon populations over that past few decades. One of the main reasons for this decrease is the loss and degradation of habitat from dam construction, stream pollution, lack of shade trees and woody debris in streams, over-irrigation, etc. With less salmon available, bears are forced to turn to other available food sources like ants. Since ants are decomposers, fewer ants means fewer nutrients returning to the soil which can support fewer autotrophs.
MAKING THE CONNECTION:
Once you have an understanding of how interconnected various species are simply on the level of who-eats-whom, and the necessary components that keep this cycle in balance, it becomes easier to understand why biodiversity is important to all life on earth. All life is dependent on the availability of water and nutrients to sustain a given organism. Humans, in general, have lost their intimate connection to the land and the importance of caring for the other beings we share the planet with. The ease of a quick drive to the grocery store has disconnected us from the understanding of how the foods found within were produced — what beings gave their lives so that we can eat and continue our own existence? Every meal should be taken in gratitude and commitment to ensure the harvest is sustainable. We depend on healthy ecosystems for our long-term survival.
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