Desert Food Chain Or Food Web

An Introduction

“Food chain,” or "Food Web" as you may know, is the term biological scientists use to describe the sequence of living organisms through which energy passes as it fuels the life of a community of plants and animals.  A food chain always begins with the plants, called “producers.”  It always ends with the animals, called “consumers.” 

In principal, the food chains of our Southwestern deserts function just like the food chains of forests, grassy plains, swamplands or any other biologically distinctive region. 

Energy and the Food Chain

sun on the desert

The first link in the food chain. - Producers

The plants, or the “producers,” capture the energy from the sun and is the first link in the food chain.

Energy – essential for the growth of all organisms, the processes of life and the actions of animals – enters the food chain through the plants, in the form of light from the sun.

Energy the capacity for causing something to happen – is used by plants to grow and reproduce.  It is used by animals to grow, reproduce and move.  It is used by you to grow, run, swim or study. 

You can think of energy as existing in two basic states. 

One is “potential” energy, or energy that is stored, like a savings account, available for spending.  Potential energy is stored, for example, in a battery, an apple or in gasoline. 

The second state is “kinetic” energy, or energy that is being spent to cause something to happen, like growth, reproduction or movement.

You can also think of energy as existing in various forms.  For instance, you use chemical energy when you employ a battery to operate your camera, cell phone or electronic game.  You use mechanical energy when you peddle your bike.  You use electrical energy when you turn on your desk lamp.  You use heat energy when you toast your bagel.  Your body uses solar energy, or sunlight, to make Vitamin D, a nutrient essential for good health. 

Almost magically, the solar energy is combined by the plants, with water and carbon dioxide to create “glucose,” a form of sugar used in reproduction and growth. This process, performed by almost every plant from the smallest to the largest, is called “photosynthesis,” a word that means “gathering of light.” (Some parasitic plants such as Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, and the snow plant, Sarcodes sanguinea, do not use photosynthesis, getting their energy instead from their host plant.)

Video on How Energy Works in the food chain 

pricky pear cactus

The second link in the food chain. - Herbivores

Energy begins to flow through the food chain when plant tissue is consumed by animals, for instance, insects, reptiles, birds, or mammals.  Animals that eat only plants are called “herbivores.”  They are the second link in the food chain. 

cactus flower

The third link in the food chain. - Carnivores

Energy moves through another link in the food chain when herbivores’ flesh is consumed by animals such as spiders, snakes, and hawks.  Animals that eat only other animals’ flesh are called “carnivores.”  They are the third link in the food chain.

lady bug

The fourth link in the food chain.  - Carnivores and Scavengers

Energy moves through still another link with carnivores that eat other carnivores.  These include, for instance, spider wasps, which may hunt tarantulas; snakes, which may eat other snakes; eagles, which may eat goshawks; and gray foxes, which may eat shrews.  These carnivores are a fourth link in the food chain.  

Energy moves in more diverse ways with animals that eat both plants and other animals.  These include, for example, earwigs, which eat flowers and flies; collared lizards, which eat various fruits and insects; gila woodpeckers, which eat fruits and insects; and coyotes, which eat fruits and small animals.  These animals, called “omnivores,” can be a second, third or fourth link in the food chain!

Energy moves in yet another direction with animals that feed on dead and decaying organisms.  These animals, called “scavengers,” include a variety of species, ranging from earthworms, which feed on dead and decaying plant tissue, to turkey vultures, which eat dead and decaying animal carcasses. 

diamondback rattlesnake

The final link in the food chain - Decomposers.

Energy moves through the final link in the food chain with microscopic animals called “decomposers,” which feed on any remaining dead plant and animal tissue and animal waste.  With time, these tiny organisms – fungi and bacteria – break down decaying organic matter, converting it into carbon dioxide and water - making them available for plants to use in the process of photosynthesis. This makes it possible for the cycle of energy to move through a living community all over again.

As you might imagine, energy follows very complex and constantly changing routes through the food chains because communities of plants and animals may consist of tens of thousands of species that change constantly with the seasons and the years.  Indeed, you can visualize the process as an interlocking web of food chains. 

Video on how the Desert Food Chain works

Desert photo


by Jay W. Sharp

How do green plants manufacture their own food?
How desert plants survive?
How desert animals survive?
The Arithmetic of the Food Chain
How scientists classify plants and animals

Note:  My thanks to Leslie Bergloff, a former teacher and the present New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum Education Coordinator for her helpful comments in preparing this article.


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The Desert Food ChainThe Desert Food Chain Video
A food chain constitutes a complex network of organisms, from plants to animals, through which energy, derived from the sun, flows in the form of organic matter and dissipates in the form of waste heat.

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Energy is the power to cause change. Plants use energy from the sun to grow and to flower. Animals use energy from plants to grow, reproduce and move. View the video to learn more!

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