What tertiary consumers are and their characteristics

We often conceive nature’s great predators as iconic animals and representative of their ecosystems, and this is often related to the fact that they are the kings of the trophic chain. Thanks to belonging to a very high trophic stratum, these animals do not have natural predators and are able to control and maintain ecological balance.

We are talking about tertiary consumers, and in this article we will tell you everything you need to know about what tertiary consumers are and examples of species. Don’t miss it.

What tertiary consumers are and their characteristics

In biology animals can be organized in different theoretical strata according to their function in the ecosystem. In this way, the concept of a trophic chain is created, in which organisms are represented at different levels depending on their relations with the rest of the organisms of the same medium. In the case of tertiary consumers, we are talking about animals occupying the fourth strata or link of the chain, above secondary consumers and under quaternary consumers, although the latter are not always taken into account in trophic chains.

These are therefore animals that feed on other animals that are also hunters such as the lion, which, in addition to feeding on herbivores, can also hunt other predatory species.

From this example we can draw a very important characteristic from tertiary consumers. The same animal species may be placed in one stratum or another depending on its activity or food source in each situation. In this way, if we continue with the example of the lion, it acts as a secondary consumer when fed on herbivores, who are primary consumers, while assuming the role of tertiary consumer when hunting and feeding on other hunting animals, which are secondary consumers.

Some common features of tertiary consumers are:

  • They occupy the fourth stratum of the trophic chain, above secondary consumers.
  • Its role in the ecosystem is to control the population of secondary consumers, causing hunter pressure to be maintained on primary consumers with bearable for the latter.
  • These are very efficient predators, capable of hunting other predators.

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Examples of tertiary consumers

Now that we have defined what tertiary consumers are, let us see some examples of animals that may belong to this trophic strata, apart from the lion mentioned above:

  • Sharks: Like many other animals, sharks can play the role of tertiary or secondary consumer depending on what their prey is. Some shark species can feed on fish that are also hunters, so they then behave as tertiary consumers.
  • Tigers: Thanks to its large size, the tiger can feed on both small prey and other large predatory animals.
  • Sea lions: Marine lions are marine mammals with a varied diet that includes other predators, such as fish.
  • Orcas: These large marine mammals can also have both roles in the trophic chain, such as secondary consumers or as tertiary consumers. Orcas feed on a variety of fish and larger animals that can be hunters, such as seals, sea lions, penguins, etc. Therefore, in some cases, they even become quaternary consumers.
  • Snakes: Some snakes are also a clear example of tertiary consumers. As seen in the image of the trophic string of the previous section, a snake can feed on a lizard, which in turn has fed on a grasshopper, which before will have been fed on plants.

Functions of tertiary consumers

Today it is known that tertiary consumers have a very relevant role in the ecosystems in which they live. Among its functions, we find:

  • Population control: As predators, tertiary consumers help control the population of animals at lower levels of the food chain. By eating secondary consumer animals, for example, tertiary consumers help maintain the balance of the food chain.
  • Natural selection: these animals can also contribute to natural selection by choosing certain animals to hunt and eat. In some cases, tertiary-consuming animals can select the weakest or sickest animals, which can help maintain the health and strength of animal populations.
  • Distribution of nutrients: contribute to the distribution of nutrients in ecosystems. By consuming other animals, tertiary consumers acquire essential nutrients that are released back into the ecosystem through excretion.
  • Although it is a function common to other trophic levels, tertiary consumers also play the function of becoming organic matter available for feeding decomposers once dead, contributing once again to nutrient recycling.

Importance of tertiary consumers

From the characteristics we have already commented on tertiary consumers, it can be extracted that they are of great importance in ecosystems. Its relevance is determined by its function in nature. Since it is a trophic link that fulfills the function of controlling populations in the lower strata, tertiary consumers take great importance in maintaining ecological balance in their ecosystem, allowing secondary consumer populations to be controlled in terms of their size and state of health, as they often preferably hunt down weaker or sick animals.

If tertiary consumers were eliminated in a given ecosystem, the level of secondary consumers could be affected in two directions. First, its population could increase greatly in the short term, which would cause hunter pressure on primary consumers to also be increased and this could lead to ecological imbalance.

Secondly, the health of the secondary consumer population could be diminished, as there are no tertiary consumers who are responsible for healing it by hunting the weakest. This would make the quality of the trophic level of secondary consumers in the long term affected, and could also lead to an ecological imbalance.

Differences between primary, secondary and tertiary consumers

These three groups of animals are essentially differentiated by the trophic level they occupy, and this characteristic arises from their role in nature:

  • Primary consumers are those heterophrous beings who feed on producers, i.e. plants and algae. These are herbivorous animals, such as plankton, giraffe or elephant.
  • Secondary consumers are those animals that feed on primary consumers, i.e. they are carnivorous animals that feed on herbivorous animals. These include wolves, foxes, cats, spiders and coyotes, among others.
  • Tertiary consumers are those animals that feed on secondary consumers and are therefore carnivores who feed on carnivorous animals. These can be called top predators or final consumers if there is no stratum of quanternal consumers in their ecosystem. Examples include seals, crocodiles, sharks and large felines.

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