What is Quaternary Consumers?

What is Quaternary Consumer?

Quaternary consumers are Top Carnivores organisms that are at the top of the food chain and feed on tertiary consumers. They are also known as super predators or apex consumers.

Quaternary consumers are typically carnivorous animals that eat animals lower in the food chain than themselves, such as tertiary and secondary consumers. Some examples of quaternary consumers include wolves, polar bears, humans, hawks, eagles, and great white sharks.

In a food chain, the producers are eaten by primary consumers, they are eaten by secondary consumers, and then they are eaten by tertiary consumers, and so on. Some food chains have additional levels, such as quaternary consumers. Organisms at the very top of a food chain are called apex consumers.

Quaternary consumers are important in maintaining the balance of ecosystems. They help regulate the populations of other organisms in the food chain. When quaternary consumers are removed from an ecosystem, it can have a ripple effect on the entire food chain.

Key Notes:

Quaternary consumers are animals that occupy the highest trophic level in a food chain.

  • Quaternary consumers are at the top of the food chain called Top carnivores and feed on tertiary consumers.
  • They are also known as apex predators and consume secondary carnivores.
  • Quaternary consumers are typically large and powerful animals, such as sharks, and eagles.
  • Some of them feed on both plants and animals and are called omnivores like human beings.
  • They play an important role in regulating the populations of other animals in their ecosystem.
  • Quaternary consumers are relatively rare in most ecosystems, as there are usually fewer of them than other types of consumers.
  • They are often at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, hunting, and other human activities.
  • They are not usually killed by other organisms and occupy the topmost trophic level in an ecosystem.
  • They are often used as indicators of ecosystem health and biodiversity.

But, What Is a Consumer?

A consumer is a living organism that gets its energy from consuming other organisms or organic matter.

The food chain can be divided into two groups: producers and consumers. In a food chain, the first trophic level consists of producers, such as plants, that produce their food through photosynthesis.

The second trophic level consists of primary consumers, also known as herbivores, that eat the producers.

The third trophic level consists of secondary consumers, which are carnivores that eat herbivores. The fourth trophic level consists of tertiary consumers, which are carnivore-eating carnivores that eat the secondary consumers.

Some food chains have additional levels, such as quaternary consumers, which are carnivores that eat tertiary consumers.

Quaternary Consumer food chain

Consumers play an important role in the food chain as they help to transfer energy from one organism to another. They are essential for maintaining the balance of the ecosystem and for the survival of other organisms in the food chain. Without consumers, the energy flow in the food chain would be disrupted, and the ecosystem would collapse.

What Makes Quaternary Consumers Special?

Being at the top of the food chain, they are usually larger animals. Because they are larger, they also need to eat a lot of food to stay alive, so there are usually fewer quaternary consumers in an ecosystem than other animals. Going back to the first example, an ecosystem would have many more mice than leopards. Otherwise, the leopards could not feed themselves.

These top consumers receive very little of the original energy in a food chain. Remember that at each step in the food chain, only 10% of the consumed organism’s energy is transferred to the consuming organism.

Quaternary consumers are large predators with a very large diet as they consume animals from lower trophic levels. They are considered super predators because they are not pursued by other predators that are not of the same species.

Sharks, for example, are considered quaternary consumers because they can even feed on other sharks. The reason there are few quaternary consumers in ecosystems is that they consume the most energy but produce the least energy.

Ecological Pyramid
This diagram shows how energy moves across a food chain.

Image source: By Wikimedia Commons

In natural systems, the number of quaternary consumers is smaller because they consume most of the energy.

What are some examples of quaternary consumers?

Examples of quaternary consumers include eagles, polar bears, tigers, alligators, crocodiles, orcas, sharks, and large predatory whales.

In a food chain; Grass→ Insects→ Frog→ Snake→ Eagle; Insects are primary consumers, Frog is secondary consumer, Snake is a tertiary consumer and Eagle is a quaternary consumer.

  • Sharks are also quaternary consumers that feed on smaller fish, mollusks, and even other sharks.
  • Eagles are hunting birds that feed on small rodents, snakes, and other birds.
  • Polar bears are quaternary consumers that feed on seals and sea lions.
  • Orcas are also quaternary consumers that feed on seals, sea lions, and even sharks.

Some animals can operate under different roles in the food chain. For example, a bear that eats fish but also berries can be both a tertiary and a quaternary consumer. Additionally, there are no exclusive quaternary consumers, and many apex predators are also tertiary consumers.

How are tertiary and quaternary consumers different?

Quaternary consumers are often also tertiary consumers. In fact, there are no exclusive quaternary consumers.

While most quaternary consumers are obligate meat consumers, most are opportunistic predators that eat tertiary, secondary, or even primary consumers.

For example, if a polar bear eats a fish, it is a tertiary consumer, but if it eats a sea lion, it is a quaternary consumer.

If a raptor eats an insectivorous rodent it is a tertiary consumer, but if it eats a snake it is a quaternary consumer.

At the top of the food chain

At the top of the chain are organisms whose biomass does not fall victim to any natural predator. The quaternary consumer is then defined as the one who feeds on tertiary consumers.

If the primary consumers are animals that feed on plants and the secondary consumers are carnivores that feed on the primary consumers, then the tertiary consumers are higher-level carnivores that feed on the secondary consumers.

Consequently, quaternary consumers would be those at the bottom of the chain consuming carnivorous animals.