Tertiary consumers


The tertiary consumers belong to the group of heterotrophs. They are carnivores that feed on other carnivores, also called third order because they make up the third level of the food chain or trophic web. Here we present its most outstanding aspects to get to know them better and assess their role in the balance of nature.


What are tertiary consumers?

Tertiary consumers are organisms that obtain matter and energy from other consumers to guarantee their subsistence . They are commonly known as predators, precisely because they use the energy accumulated by other animals, mainly those belonging to the second level of the food web. They eat them alive after capturing them swimming, flying or running.

  • Characteristics of tertiary consumers
  • Special features
  • Which are
  • Types of tertiary consumers
  • Importance of tertiary consumers
  • Examples of tertiary consumers

Characteristics of tertiary consumers

Among the main characteristics of tertiary consumers we highlight the following:

  • They are carnivores that feed off other carnivores. They do not have the ability to produce their energy requirements that is why they are called heterotrophs like primary consumers, which are herbivores because of their plant-based diet, and secondary consumers, who eat herbivores.
  •  They are known as the supercarnivores. However they can consume grass thus becoming omnivorous organisms. That is, their diet can include animals and, to a lesser extent, plants. Those that sustain themselves on various prey have a better chance of surviving than the more selective ones.
  • Due to their condition as carnivores, many animals have a different digestive system than herbivores, being shorter to facilitate the assimilation of meat. They are also endowed with characteristics suitable for hunting other animals such as large claws and teeth, good eyesight and hearing.
  • They exist throughout the animal kingdom ,  therefore they are present in mammals , fish, birds, reptiles and even insects. They are usually the final consumers because they constitute the last link in food webs. Being on the extreme they tend to be more sensitive. There are seldom chains of four or five levels due to insufficient energy.
  • Their location in food webs frees them from being attacked by predators from higher trophic levels . But it also causes communities to confront each other when there is insufficient food, establishing a struggle for survival among them.

Special features

In addition to the characteristics indicated, tertiary consumers have other characteristics or particular properties that differentiate them.

They demand enormous amounts of energy to be well nourished, have normal development and properly perform their functions to live. In contrast to their high level of consumption, they are the ones that produce the least.

It is the smallest group of consumers and it is necessary to keep it under control. Their populations are regulated only by the amount of food available, the less food the fewer individuals.

Generally, tertiary consumers are not prey to other carnivores. It means that they are not attacked or preyed upon by other species because only, on rare occasions, some ecosystems can accommodate a fourth trophic level, whose quaternary consumers attack the tertiary. Such is the case in aquatic environments where there are birds that catch certain fish that feed on other fish.

At this level are located those animals that predominate in the ecosystem , which are influenced by the total biomass . Biomass is the abundance of a species that, according to Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, is limited by the scarcest existing resource or factor.

Which are

They are known as super-predators. Within this group there is a great diversity of animals of different species. In general, they are larger than their victims but they are smaller than they.

Very dangerous snakes, marine animals, canines, big cats and very voracious animals are highlighted , of considerable size estimated as a threat to human beings. For this reason they are attacked by destroying their habitats, ignoring the transcendental importance they have in ecosystems. That is, they destroy them despite the fact that tertiary consumers contribute to maintaining balance in biotic communities, abiotic environments, and the dynamic interactions that make up an ecosystem.

It should be noted that super predators disappear, whose weights range between 35 and 150 kg, would cause an excessive increase in medium-sized predators. The increase could be up to four times.

A large part of these animals weigh between 1 and 15 kg. They are called mesopredators, here foxes, skunks, raccoons, badgers are located. In this sense, it is pertinent to control these smaller predators.

Types of tertiary consumers

Tertiary consumers can be classified, according to their diet, into true predators , browsers and parasites. Secondary consumers have the same classification.

  • True Predators: They attack prey by killing it quickly, then eating it in its entirety or selecting only portions of it.
  • The browsers : These for their part, do not usually kill the prey, they choose only some of its parts as food. For this reason they can attack large animals. Flies that land on numerous individuals causing significant damage to some of the body regions are an example of them.
  • Parasites: Made up of parasites that also feed on some parts of the victim. They are usually located in the intestines of the same consuming them slowly. They become a few host dams.

Another type of tertiary consumers are scavengers, whose food is corpses in a state of stupefaction such as vultures, coyote, crows and hyenas. Despite this style of food, they are not decomposers because they only feed on corpses, they do not transform the matter and energy of the remains into inorganic matter.

Importance of tertiary consumers

Tertiary consumers represent the minority group but are no less important for that. The most significant utility is that they contribute to the biological control of the other types of consumers. Directly on the second order organisms and indirectly on the lower ones.

Predatory carnivores regulate the existing species of secondary consumers or herbivores,  influencing the balance of ecosystems, being essential for their functioning and structure.

It happens because by feeding on them they avoid a super population, which would destroy the plants in the first sector. This indirect incidence of predators on other trophic levels is known as trophic cascades.

Another reason for its importance is that when these organisms belonging to the last link die, their decomposing organic matter degrades generating substances. Some of these are used by first-level organizations. In this way, a process of recycling of matter is caused through the food chain .

Examples of tertiary consumers

Very numerous animals are classified as tertiary consumers, made up of multiple species belonging to a biological community. Among which are:

  • Marine Animals: Like Sharks; when they are young they opt for fish, crustaceans and mollusks . The larger ones eat dolphins, turtles, seals, squid. If there is a shortage, they attack each other, devouring the minors. Other marine carnivores are Orca Whales, seals, elephant seals, sea lions, and sea bears.
  • Birds: Among these are hawks whose food is small land mammals such as rabbits, mice, squirrels. They also eat other birds such as herons, lagopods, ducks, seagulls, pigeons, owls; some of these are also carnivorous. Likewise, eagles are well known for hunting and eating animals.
  • Reptiles: One of the highlights is the crocodile. At a young age they are experts in catching frogs, little fish, mollusks. As adults, their abilities allow them to eat mammals, buffaloes, zebras, other reptiles, and some birds. Together with crocodiles, snakes are the other exclusively carnivorous animals.
  • Felines: Like the Lion, hunter of all kinds of animals, preferably of large size and weight, such as buffalo, goats, giraffes, antelopes. It is one of the most renowned predators. Other feline tertiary consumers are tigers, who first of all choose to eat meat, preferably deer and wild boar, although they do not rule out fish, elephants, cattle and many more. The panther, for its part, is a cunning hunter. It catches from mice to cattle.

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