What does decomposer mean?
Decomposer is an organism that assists break down organic materials from the environment such as the remnants of dead organisms. In chemistry and biology, organic refers to any substance that is fabricated with molecules that has hydrogen and carbon atoms. Few materials and all living things are organic.
Why are decomposers important?
Decomposers play vital roles in the ecosystem such as:
- Help recycle nutrients- Decomposers help convert organic materials into inorganic materials that contain nutrients which can be added to the soil. In case there were no decomposers, all organic substances would not be recycled into living materials, which would make our environment dirty because dead materials would accumulate. In addition, the absence of decomposers would deny plants vital nutrients needed for growth.
- For instance, about 90% of plant life benefits from a symbiotic relationship with fungi. The soil fungi benefit from plant and tree roots by feeding on the dead matter produced and get carbon from the decomposed material. The plant, on the other hand, can receive nutrients returned in the soil by fungi. These fungi also support the plant and tree roots to absorb water and nutrients from the soil thus creating an effective connecting system between the roots and the soil.
How do decomposers get their food?
- Decomposers obtain their food from organic matter. They are heterotrophic which means they get their energy from eating organic substances. Organic or dead matter offers nutrients for decomposers that use it to grow and reproduce. In other words, decomposers break down dead materials for their survival.
What is an example of a decomposer?
An example of a decomposer is fungi. Fungi are the chief decomposers on our planet. Examples of fungi are mushrooms, yeast and molds. Fungi have the following features that make them effective decomposers:
- Hyphae- These are branching filaments that enable fungi to penetrate dead matter.
- Enzymes- Fungi are also found in wood. These kinds of fungi have special enzymes that help them decompose compounds in the forest. Fungi found in the wood are the only microorganisms that produce these specific enzymes thus making them excellent decomposers in the woods.
Mushrooms- There are many species of mushrooms and most of them are beneficial to the environment. The following are some species of mushrooms:
- Saprotrophic mushrooms- These species of mushrooms are decomposers. They produce enzymes and acids that help break down dead matter into smaller materials they can take in. Hence decaying plants are a source of food for saprotroph.
- Mycorrhizal mushrooms- This species has a good relationship with the plants and trees. Mycorrhizal mushrooms add moisture, phosphorous and nutrients to the plant and trees. They then receive sugar that plants and trees produce. This enables plants and trees to grow quickly, stronger and bigger.
- Parasitic mushroom- This type of mushroom is dangerous and invades the host and finally kills it.
- Endophytic fungi- Endophytes invade the host tissue. However, the host remains healthy and benefits from nutrients released into the soil. Most of endophytes mushrooms can be cultivated in the laboratory in the absence of the host.
Apart from fungi, other decomposers include:
- Bacteria- Bacteria are unicellular organisms found everywhere in the environment. Bacteria just like fungi obtain nutrients from dead matter for survival. Some of the bacteria can kill the host when they invade it as well as provide nutrients for other microorganisms when they decompose.
Decomposers and detritivores
Some organisms do same function as decomposers; they are called detritivores.
- Decomposers and detritivores are not the same; they differ in the way they break down dead material.
- Detritivores digest dead matter with their bodies before they break it down and obtain nutrient.
- Decomposers, on the other hand, use biochemical reactions to break down the organic material.
- Examples of detritivores include woodlice, earthworms, and slugs.
Decomposers and scavengers
Scavengers and decomposers feed on dead organisms. The only difference is those scavengers are usually the first to eat a dead organism. Once scavengers finish eating, decomposers and detritivores eat the remnants. There are many scavengers such as lion, wolf, and vulture.
What are the stages of decomposition?
When the decomposers break down dead organism, the remains pass through five steps of decomposition with the help of two primary processes. These processes are:
- Autolysis- This process involves the cellular enzymes found in organic material breaking down tissues and cells.
- Putrefaction- This is a process where microbes grow and procreate all over the organic material.
Stages of decomposition
The following are the five steps of decomposition:
- Fresh- This step starts immediately the organism’s heart stops palpitating. There is no oxygen and therefore carbon dioxide accumulates in the body of the dead organisms. Autolysis process begins where cellular enzymes in the dead organism breaks down the tissues and cells. Putrefaction also starts where microbes grow all over the body of the dead organism.
- Bloat- Putrefaction leads to accumulation of gases which make the organism remnants seem bloated.
- Active decay- In this stage, the dead organism begins to decay. The organism loses little mass and begins to disintegrate. The fungi or bacteria produce gases such as ammonia, methane which cause a strong awful smell.
- Advanced decay- In the advanced stage, the organism has lost a lot of mass, and there is little left to be decomposed. If the dead organism is in or on the soil, the nearby soil will show a rise in nutrients that nourish the soil.
- Remains or dry- In this stage, only dry bones, cartilage, and skin are left. There is a high level of nutrients here, and plants will grow around it. Finally, the bones are the one that will be left after decomposition.