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What is the Food Chain?

This article is written by The Hedrick Project Contributor, Faith Foushee. Interested in becoming a contributor and having your work featured? Click here.

Imagine a vibrant field with a hungry grasshopper munching on grass. As the grasshopper eats, it gets energy from the grass, then a bird swoops down to get the grasshopper and consumes it for energy. This illustration is a food chain – how energy moves from one organism to another.

Discover more about the food chain, how they vary in different locations, and how human interactions affect animals and their habitats.

Components of the Food Chain

Each food chain component works together to create a balanced ecosystem for energy transfer, and recycling nutrients. Every organism plays an important role in maintaining the habitat’s overall health and stability.

Primary Producers

Role: Convert sunlight into usable energy through photosynthesis

Examples: Plants, algae, grass, moss

Primary Consumers

Role: Feed on primary producers for energy

Examples: Rabbits, deer, grasshoppers

Secondary Consumers

Role: Feed on primary consumers for energy

Examples: Snakes, wolves, hawks

Tertiary Consumers

Role: Also known as apex predators who feed on secondary consumers

Examples: Lions, tigers, eagles


Role: Break down organic matter and return nutrients to the ecosystem

Examples: Bacteria, fungi, earthworms

Food Chain Examples

Ocean Food Chain

In the ocean, phytoplankton are the primary producers consumed by small ocean animals for energy. These small fish are prey to larger fish, such as tuna or sharks. Killer whales and great white sharks are the apex predators at the top of the food chain.

Desert Food Chain

In the desert, the plants and animals must adapt to extreme conditions, such as heat and a limited water supply. Plants like cacti and other succulents serve as the primary producers who conserve water and survive the conditions to provide energy to desert herbivores. Secondary consumers in the desert include foxes, coyotes, and snakes. The top of the desert food chain varies by location, but includes apex predators like the mountain lion, red-tailed hawk, and the long-nosed leopard lizard.

Food Chain vs Food Web

The terms food chain and a food web are sometimes used interchangeably. While the terms both describe how organisms depend on each other, they are different. Food chains are like a straight line of what organism provides energy to another. Food webs are more complex and show the various relationships between organisms and all of the food chains within an ecosystem. For example, an oceanic food web shows how apex predators at the top of the food chain, like sharks, prey on multiple levels of the food chain. Sharks are not limited to one kind of species for prey, there are several types of smaller fish for nutrients.

Human Impact on Food Chains

Habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution, and climate change are a few of the ways humans impact food chains and disrupt an ecosystem's balance. Conservation efforts, sustainable resource practices, and responsible consumption are a few steps we can take to preserve food chains in their natural habitats.

The Hedrick Project partners directly with organizations supporting conservation of land, water, and animals. Learn more about how you can support our partners and donate today!


Written by: Faith Foushee


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