Dead stuff: The secret ingredient in our food chain – John C. Moore

Dead stuff: The secret ingredient in our food chain – John C. Moore

January 7, 2020 100 By Ewald Bahringer


If someone called you scum, you’d probably be offended, but scientifically, they might not be far off. Have you ever thought about where your food comes from? You might say it comes from plants, animals, or even fungi, but you’d probably rather not think about the rotting organisms and poop that feed those plants, animals, and fungi. So really, you and most of the matter in your body are just two or three degrees of separation from things like pond scum. All species in an ecosystem, from the creatures in a coral reef to the fish in a lake to the lions on the savannah, are directly or indirectly nourished by dead stuff. Most of the organic matter in our bodies, if we trace it back far enough, comes from CO2 and water through photosynthesis. Plants use the energy from sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water from the environment into glucose and oxygen. That glucose is then transformed into more complex organic molecules to form leaves, stems, roots, fruit, and so on. The energy stored in these organic molecules supports the food chains with which we’re familiar. You’ve probably seen illustrations like this or this. These green food chains start with living plants at their base. But in real-life terrestrial ecosystems, less than 10% of plant matter is eaten while it’s still alive. What about the other 90? Well, just look at the ground on an autumn day. Living plants shed dead body parts: fallen leaves, broken branches, and even underground roots. Many plants are lucky enough to go their whole lives without being eaten, eventually dying and leaving remains. All of these uneaten, undigested, and dead plant parts, that 90% of terrestrial plant matter? That becomes detritus, the base of what we call the brown food chain, which looks more like this. What happens to plants also happens to all other organisms up the food chain: some are eaten alive, but most are eaten only when they’re dead and rotting. And all along this food chain, living things shed organic matter and expel digestive waste before dying and leaving their remains to decay. All that death sounds grim, right? But it’s not. All detritus is ultimately consumed by microbes and other scavengers, so it actually forms the base of the brown food chain that supports many other organisms, including us. Scientists are learning that this detritus is an unexpectedly huge energy source, fueling most natural ecosystems. But the interactions within an ecosystem are even more complex than that. What a food chain really represents is a single pathway of energy flow. And within any ecosystem, many of these flows are linked together to form a rich network of interactions, or food web, with dead matter supporting that network at every step. The resulting food web is so connected that almost every species is no more than two degrees from detritus, even us humans. You probably don’t eat rotting things, poop, or pond scum directly, but your food sources probably do. Many animals we eat either feed directly on detritus themselves, like pork, poultry, mushrooms, shellfish, or catfish and other bottom feeders, or they are fed animal by-products. So, if you’re thinking nature is full of waste, you’re right. But one organism’s garbage is another’s gold, and all that rotting dead stuff ultimately provides the energy that nourishes us and most of life on Earth, as it passes through the food web. Now that’s some food for thought.