In Defense of Scavengers and Decomposers

In Defense of Scavengers and Decomposers

What happens when an animal dies in the forest? Typically, the FBI are on scene within minutes. Not the Federal Bureau of Investigations; rather the Fungus, Bacteria, and Invertebrates. Insects, such as flies, are attracted to carrion in search of a place to lay eggs. Beetles arrive and begin scavenging on the flesh, followed by vultures, opossums, crows, raccoons, and other carrion eaters. Bacteria help break down the rest of the body and the waste from the scavengers, returning the remaining nutrients back to the soil.

How does energy flow through a food web? All energy comes from the sun, which provides the initial energy that stimulates photosynthesis in plants (producers). Inside the plant, chloroplasts use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar. This sugar or carbohydrate provides the energy needed for plant growth. Plant-eating animals (rabbits and squirrels – primary consumers) ingest the sugar from the plant, obtaining necessary energy. The animal itself gets consumed by secondary consumers such as fox and hawks and the cycle continues.

Once the energy has reached an apex predator at end of a food chain, what happens to it? What about the plants that aren’t eaten by primary consumers or the animals that aren’t predated upon? Nature wastes little and will recycle what is leftover. That’s where the scavengers and decomposers become crucial. Scavengers assist decomposers in breaking down dead material. The decomposers then convert the dead material into usable nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, that producers can utilize.
If these animals and organisms provide such an essential role in the ecosystem, why don’t they receive the same appreciation as other animals? Scavengers throughout history have been associated with death. This association influences folktales, myths, and pop culture references. But think about a world without them. As in human communities, all living things have a role or job in an ecosystem. Without these jobs being performed, communities would not function properly. Scavengers and decomposers are similar to workers in a sanitation department. Without sanitation workers, our communities would be dirty, unhealthy, and full of trash.
Scavengers and decomposers deserve our respect. They do an essential job in the ecosystem and are necessary for the recycling of nutrients and energy.
About the Author

Eliisa Schilmeister
Environmental Educator and Volunteer Coordinator

Elissa has been involved with Teatown for 26 years as camper, volunteer and staff. She is a NYS Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator and an EMT. She has many interests including herpetology, travel, photography and learning new things.