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Cycle Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

You’ve probably seen plenty of worms. If you’ve seen a worm in a pile of leaves on your lawn, that worm was probably eating those dead leaves. After that worm has broken down those leaves, it releases matter into the soil in the form of nutrients. The surrounding grass then absorbs those nutrients through its root system. When the grass grows, it attracts insects that eat grass, such as beetles and grasshoppers. Birds then might eat the insects. All of these creatures feeding on different things in their ecosystem are examples of cycle matter and energy transfer. Matter is cycled and recycled, and cellular energy is transferred. It’s how all living things survive – including humans!

Every living system needs matter and energy to function. The flow of energy and cycling of matter through ecosystems happen due to the different interactions between living creatures, and also between living creatures and their environment.

Did you know that a creature as tiny as an ant can affect a predator as large and dangerous as a lion? Up and down the food chain, different organisms transfer and transform matter and energy, affecting how each creature lives and behaves. In a way, it’s not very different from how you interact with your environment in your everyday life.

Every living creature needs nutrients to survive and function properly. If you’ve ever stayed up so late that you didn’t wake up in time for breakfast, you probably felt pretty run down by lunchtime. Well, every creature in the biosphere needs sufficient food and water! (FYI: the biosphere is defined as being all regions of the planet that contain living things.) And it’s the quest for food and water that contributes to the transformation of matter and the transfer of energy throughout the ecosystem.

When we talk about matter, we are referring to everything in an environment, including living and non-living things. Plants and animals – including microbes – are living things, while air, water, and minerals are non-living things. All living organisms that affect other living organisms or influence or alter the environment are categorized as biotic factors. Non-living elements like wind and water that affect living organisms are categorized as abiotic factors. Biotic factors will adapt their behaviors and physical characteristics to abiotic factors over time. For example, a desert cactus has evolved to survive and thrive in an environment with minimal water reserves and constant heat. How living creatures interact with their environment is what we’ll be discussing in the following article.

Decomposers

Did you know that the natural world has its own FBI? No, not the law enforcement agency – fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates. These are the microbes, worms, and insects that break down plant and animal waste materials. When we compost our food waste, we rely upon these organisms to consume this matter and effectively recycle it into nutrients that enrich soils and feed plants. The process of decomposition involves using energy to break chemical bonds into multiple compounds, which is an endothermic reaction (the literal definition of endothermic is “taking in heat”). However, the act also releases heat, which is an exothermic reaction. This process is what essentially creates the soil in which plants grow.

Producers

Plants are the producers of the natural world. We call them producers because they are able to internally generate their own food by converting non-organic matter into nutrients. They use water, solar energy, and atmospheric carbon dioxide to create glucose. Additionally, they use their root systems to soak up the nutrients in the soil left by decomposers. The use of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to make their own carbohydrates is called photosynthesis.

Consumers

After the producers and decomposers have finished producing and decomposing, consumers can then access their nutrients by eating the resulting plants, insects, and animals. Consumers eat – or consume – producers, decomposers, and even other consumers. Herbivores (organisms that only eat vegetation), omnivores (organisms that eat vegetation and animals/insects), and carnivores (organisms that eat animals/insects) are all consumers. While this world of predators and prey seems kind of scary, it’s perfectly natural, and it’s how the ecosystem is able to function and provide the kind of biodiversity that allows every creature – including humans – to survive.

Whenever an organism consumes another organism, it is receiving necessary nutrients and energy. Additionally, consumers also release energy and recycle matter through the process of digesting those nutrients. The circle of life continues when the composers die, and the decomposers break down their matter.

The health of our ecosystems is dependent upon these functions. Biodiversity – when there are lots of different organisms in an ecosystem – is essential to keeping our environment healthy. Decomposers recycle matter for producers, which provide food for consumers. Everything working together helps keep our biosphere thriving, and also keeps our air and water clean. Unfortunately, the removal of the world’s forests can seriously harm our environment.

Global forest removal is the most significant factor in the reduction of biodiversity. Biodiversity supports all life function within ecosystems, from supplying oxygen, reducing pollution, refilling groundwater reserves, and much more. Because biodiversity is crucial to the healthy function of all the global systems, deforestation can be considered a major threat to our environmental health.

Fortunately, reforestation initiatives can reverse the negative environmental effects of forest removal. Over time, planting trees on a large scale has the potential to help damaged ecosystems regenerate while creating the most effective carbon mitigation system possible.

Forest Founders is dedicated to preserving and restoring global forests. To learn how you can help our forest systems, please visit our information page.

To join our mission to plant trees, or to learn how you can contribute to saving our forests, please visit our sign-up page.

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What is the Food Chain?
When we talk about the food chain in the natural world, we are referring to what-eats-what. Here are the three ways organisms find and absorb nutrients.
Decomposers: These are organisms – fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates – that break down dead plant and waste materials into chemicals that become part of soil composition. Some decomposers are microscopic, like bacteria, while others are the insects and fungi we see every day. Examples of decomposers are:
• Mushrooms
• Flies
• Earthworms
• Slugs
• Snails

Producers: These are organisms – plants – that use non-living matter such as sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to create their own nutrients. The process is called photosynthesis. Examples of producers include:
• Moss
• Shrubs
• Trees
• Grasses

Consumers: These are organisms that eat other living organisms – such as plants and animals/insects – to survive. Some consumers are also decomposers, like worms. This is because they eat living plants. Examples of consumers include:
• Herbivores
• Carnivores
• Omnivores