Food webs, food chains, chains and webs…it’s all the same right?!
They are both a simplified way to communicate a complex idea into graphical form organized for our human minds. Sort of like the infamous rock cycle, the ever important carbon cycle, and, last but not least, life cycles! Both food webs and food chains depict who eats what in this crazy world of ours. They both have lines connecting animals to another, but there is a very important difference: SCOPE.
Chains That Bind
The scope of a food chain is like watching Avatar without the 3D glasses–it’s two-dimensional and you aren’t really getting the whole picture. A food chain doesn’t have the same impact as does a web, just like Avatar on your 14 inch television [do they still make those?] doesn’t have the same impact as watching it at your local 3D IMAX. So a food chain is more of a two-dimensional, linear representation of what animal is eaten by what other animal, but you don’t get the whole picture.
There is a nice pictoral food chain at Stephs Nature. If you like to be a fancy-pants type of food chainer, you can move the animals around so they aren’t in a line, but maybe a circle. In that way, it looks like a web, but the relationships depicted between the animals are still linear! This is sometimes an easier way to explain webs to children without overloading their brains.
Webs We Weave
Now, of course, if you were to create a food web with ‘the complete picture’, you’d be working on it for several days, I am sure, and the thing would be massive! Not to mention not very ecofriendly since it would require a lot of ink and paper, but I digress. As mentioned in the first paragraph, both are simplified interpretations of what occurs in the natural world, but the food web offers a couple peeks more of what is going on.
Being human, it is very easy to forget that we occupy a spoke in the web, as well as modify the web in many ways. Being that we are omnivores and are only somewhat picky, we are considered top-tier consumers. Take a look at this food web at Astraea.net. You could conceivably draw a line to every one of those animals for humans. Many around the world eat insects, as represented by the dragonfly, we live with and consume bacteria [and vice versa], and snakes and birds miss the list for what’s on the menu in many areas.
Where we fit in the food web is often difficult to discuss delicately. Not everyone’s final rest is in a plush casket. I would venture to guess that most of the world population enters into the realm of the decomposers much faster than that. Crabs in the Ganges are a creepy example [think of your family tree having loops instead of branches…yea…]. Not that it doesn’t happen elsewhere, but the Ganges is considered a sacred body of water where often times bodies are placed. These bodies are taken up by the decomposers, like crabs, which are then fished out and eaten…Mother Nature’s quick return.
Another example that we would consider odd is the Tibetan sky burial, although this is different from the crabs because this is a human-aided event. How to bury a human in the sky? Feed them to the birds…Without getting too grotesque–I have no idea who is reading this, Tibet has a very rocky landscape high in the Himalyas, so cremation was a better option…except the lack of trees for fuel, so bodies are given over to Nature. This occurs at specific sites and the vulture populations know this and have become part of the ritual. I think that’s as far as I will go, but please note, if you look it up on Wikipedia, there are some graphic photos.
Continuing with the anthropogenic food web twist, you are probably wondering by now what this REALLY has to do with you…the two examples given have nothing to do with you and the next episode of Lost and that pizza you’ve ordered. In fact, I am sure you can go your whole day without thinking of a food web. But the ultimate question here is should you? Is it better for your kids in the long run if you don’t ponder your place in the food web? Or say you aren’t a believer in bioaccumulation, so maybe it might be worthwhile to think of energy as it moves up the food web. Whatever way you consider it, you are a lifetime member of what has now become the global food web and it is worth a few comtemplative thoughts. Funny, I just remember them eating fruit in Avatar…