Food chains, or food webs, as they are sometimes called in recognition of their complexity, are part of life in the African savanna, just as they are in every biome on Earth. The African savanna is a mixture of grassland and sparse trees that begins south of the Sahara Desert and stretches to the northern border of South Africa, not including the portion of central Africa that consists of tropical rainforest. It is home to some of the largest animals on Earth, including the African elephant, giraffe and African lion. But it is also home to some notable smaller creatures, too, and each animal on the savanna is part of an intricate web of producers and consumers.
Hunters: African Lions
African lions are apex predators, much like crocodiles and killer whales, meaning they are at the top of their food chain. That does not mean lions can attack and eat everything in sight any more than an orca would chase down a blue whale. A full-grown African elephant, for example, has little to fear even from the king of beasts. But their status as apex predators means that lions are free from being hunted, except by man. At the top of the food chain, lions play a vital role in thinning herds of older and weaker animals that would otherwise be consuming scarce resources healthier animals need to stay strong. The big cats work in prides to hunt a territory up to 100 square miles, preying on antelope, zebra and wildebeest, among other animals of the savanna.
Known in Africa as wildebeests, due to their formidable appearance, these large mammals are often labeled gnus elsewhere in the world. Their large numbers provide a steady supply of food for predators of the African savanna, including lions and cheetahs. Wildebeests and other herd mammals are the most numerous of the animals that call the African savanna home. They live in herds numbering in the thousands, compared to prides of a dozen or so lions, and feed on producers -- the grasses, roots and trees that dot the plains. Although wildebeests are common prey for lions, a herd of these animals is a formidable target, which is why lions typically work together when hunting.
Scavengers: Spotted Hyenas
The spotted hyena, vulture and other scavengers of the African savanna play a critical role in the region's food chain, cleaning up the carcasses left over from successful lion hunts as well as carcasses of animals that succumb to old age, injury, or illness. Hyenas are common scavengers on the African savanna, gathering the bulk of their food from the work of larger predators. At the same time, these and other scavengers are performing a valuable service to the ecosystem by speeding the breakdown of dead creatures as they pick at the meat and spread the bones. Africa's growing human population, however, has meant increased incidences of trouble between people and hyenas as predators, as both struggle for habitat. Although some of the native people actually leave their dead for hyenas to consume, these animals are also labeled a menace and have been blamed for taking out livestock, breaking into human food supplies and even attacking humans. Because of this, they have been heavily hunted in some areas.
Termites, beetles, fungi and other decomposers act as a valuable link in the food chain, returning dead animals to the soil and also breaking down animal waste. Decomposition is vital to a healthy ecosystem. The decomposed animal and waste material feeds the soil, and allows for continued growth of the grasses and trees that feed the large herbivores. These expansive herds of mammals can then continue to serve as meals for the large carnivores, with leftovers providing plenty to eat for the scavengers.
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