In a food chain, primary consumers are assigned the task of converting plant nutrients into digestible form for secondary and tertiary consumers. Examples of primary consumers include all the plant-eating species (herbivores) found on the planet, right from leaf-cutter ants to elephants.
Venus Fly Trap: Producer or Consumer?
Despite the fact that it is insectivorous, the Venus fly trap plant is considered both, producer and consumer, as it doesn’t just rely on insects for food, but also resorts to photosynthesis.
In a food chain, organisms are classified into three groups: (i) producers, (ii) consumers, and (iii) decomposers. While producers form the first trophic level of the food chain, consumers form the three subsequent trophic levels; at times, four. At the second trophic level, there are primary consumers; at the third, there are secondary consumers; tertiary consumers occupy the fourth level, and in rare cases, there is a fifth level which is occupied by quaternary consumers. Besides producers and consumers, the food web also has decomposers, which are assigned the task of breaking down dead plant and animal matter, and releasing it into the environment for recycling.
What is a Primary Consumer?
Simply put, a primary consumer, or first-order consumer, is any organism that occupies the second trophic level of the food chain, and feeds on producers, i.e., plants, which form the first trophic level. In essence, primary consumers … or consumers in general, are heterotrophs, i.e., organisms that cannot produce their own food and thus, have to rely on autotrophs (organisms that produce their own food by using light, water, carbon dioxide, or other chemicals) for the same.
In the ocean food chain, for instance, zooplanktons play the role of primary consumers, feeding on phytoplanktons, which are producers, and eventually fall prey to fish, which are secondary consumers.
The easiest way to identify primary consumers in any given ecosystem is to identify the herbivores in the said ecosystem. These include grass-eating species found in the savannas, leaf-eating and fruit-eating species from tropical rainforests, and even freshwater species which feed on aquatic plants. No wonder primary consumers are also called herbivores. As for omnivores, they can be both, primary and secondary consumers.
Examples of Primary Consumers
Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
Leaf-cutter Ants Genus Atta and Acromyrmex
Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)
Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)
Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
Blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
As most secondary and tertiary consumers in the food chain―carnivores in particular―can neither resort to photosynthesis to produce their own food, nor ingest plants, they are dependent on primary consumers for their energy requirements. The problem though is that, only 10 percent of energy is transferred from one trophic level to another during the process of energy transfer, which is why there are less top-level predators and more primary consumers in the ecosystem. It is this arrangement that gives the energy transfer diagram it’s characteristic pyramid shape.