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

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

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.


  1. It's pretty sad that people need YouTube to learn this stuff.  The dirt we walk on, the air we breath, the very skin on our body, it's dead stuff!  How shocking.  Go outside and learn all of this for yourself.

  2. Go Vegan. It is the only working diet that works.

    It's natural (your natural diet), healthy for you, better for the economy and the environment, you save lives, world, you stop murder, create a smarter world, lower crime and make a peaceful world

    Go vegan or die

  3. Nature isn't full of waste. If another creature or microbe can and does make use of it, it isn't waste. Nature actually has no waste, since everything can fall to the ground and decompose into usable nutrients for the soil.

  4. Mushrooms are so good, and shrimp too, I think I might like the taste of those fed by detritus, hell I'd be lying if I said the smell of cut grass, that's got mushrooms or manure used on it, didn't remind me of food, and make me hungry.

  5. i guess living on a ranch made me more familiar with this concept, as my level of surprise was about 0, it just seemed to bring concepts together than weren't really stuck together fully.

  6. From this animation one could think that human beings (should) only eat other animals and some mushrooms; and that the eco system has no problem dealing with any amount of biological waste. Thumbs down.

  7. I laughed so hard at this. Not because I thought it was stupid or incorrect, but the name of the restaurant. If you rearrange the words around (but keep the pronunciation) you get the french word 'Poubelle', which means trash or to throw away.

  8. hamburgers, bacon, chicken burritos..  all dead things. It is called meat, to keep from grossing people out. Most don't even realize how the cows, pigs, chickens had such sad lives, and traumatized deaths. But, it's all there.. in the 'meat'.

  9. The difference between life and death is living stuff emits certain photons that dead stuff
    can't emit because the bio machines broken and whats left are building blocks and stored energy in fats and sugars enzymes water minerals and so on also the connection to the isomorphic magnetic field is disconnected. once that's severed conciseness cant receive information from that organism nor impart will upon it.

  10. You detritus head!! Yeah, I said it! You're nothing but 2° from the detritus that what you've eaten ate, and that you, yourself create!
    Detritus head! That's you! TED-X says so!

  11. Death people
    You died
    Well a tree or something’s gonna grow there
    Animal died ?
    Your dog ?
    Don’t be sad. That dead dog is gonna fuel some microorganisms which are food for plants which are food for worms which are food for birds *breathes in and out twice* and *panting and the rest is in a weary voice* that bird *pant* is food for another wandering dog *BREATHES IN a lot* which will soon be your new pet

  12. booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Well, at least nothing goes to waste, and plants that grow on manure are tastier than those that don't

  14. Guys, this is a video about how dead animals help to create food made with dead food which just helped us to understand and appreciate dead stuff basically making us appreciate the video

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