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The Amazon rainforest has the ability to provide food, shelter, and water for all of its inhabitants. All plants and animals are part of a complex web that ties each living thing to the rainforest. Of course, each living thing needs energy to grow and survive. As we have talked about before, plants get their energy from the the sun. Animals, like you, get energy from eating food.

This is what a typical Amazon market looks like.

Food for animals is made up of either plants or other animals. Some animals only eat plants. They're called herbivores. Some animals only eat other animals. They're called carnivores. Other animals, like humans, eat both plants and animals. Animals like us are called omnivores.

A sloth eats tree leaves. Tapirs eat fruit. Hummingbirds eat plant nectar. When these animals eat plant products, food energy is transferred from the plants to the animal.

However, when these animals are eaten by other animals, (for example when a jaguar eats a tapir, a harpy eagle eats a sloth, or a snake eats a hummingbird), energy is transferred from one animal to another.

The energy transfer from one species to another is often called a food chain, and can continue several more times, but it eventually ends when the last animal dies. What happens to the dead animal? It is usually either eaten by scavengers, or is broken down and used as food for bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi are referred to as decomposers. Decomposers are essential to all habitats, because they take care of cleaning dead material. There are more than 100,000 types of decomposer organisms. Imagine what the world would like if it weren't for decomposers!

Every organism in an ecosystem can be grouped by what it eats. Producers are organisms that produce their own food and energy. Plants are producers. All other organisms in the ecosystem rely on producers. They are the base of the food chain, web, or pyramid.

All organisms that cannot make their own food are considered consumers. Consumers rely on other organisms for food. Think of what any animal eats. Is it a producer or consumer?

Now that you know about how plants and animals gather food energy in the wild, it's time to think about how humans fit into the ecosystem.

Think about the food you ate this morning for breakfast. Where did it come from-- your house, a restaurant, a gas station? How did that food get from where it grew to the place where you bought it?

These seem like simple questions, but they have significant global impacts. More than any other choice we make in the United States, the food we buy and the way it is produced has the greatest environmental impact, both good and harmful. Foods that are produced in ways that help to care for the earth can have positive impacts, but some foods are very hard on the environment.

In the Amazon most of the food people eat is locally grown and harvested, like this catfish.

Think about the last time you were in a supermarket. Did you see bananas? Have you ever seen bananas growing in your neighborhood? Bananas may grow like crazy in the Amazon, but they sure don't grow wild in Chicago!

Food that has to be shipped from far away requires multiple forms of transportation. Bananas may be flown from Central America to the largest city near you. Those bananas are then loaded onto trucks and driven to your supermarket, where they wait for you to buy them. It's amazing to think of how far produce must travel before it ends up in your kitchen. Next time you're in the supermarket, look for products that are grown on each continent (excluding Antarctica, of course). Once you start tracing your food back to the source or origin, you can begin to make well-informed, environmentally sustainable, culturally-sensitive food choices.

Giant bunches of bananas can be found in most Amazon markets.

Links:

Teach Kids about Photosynthesis: http://www.thekidsgarden.co.uk/teaching-kids-about-photosynthesis.html

Biology 4 Kids: Photosynthesis: http://www.biology4kids.com/files/plants_photosynthesis.html

Food From The Rainforest (for kids): http://ran.org/new/kidscorner/about_rainforests/factsheets/foods_from_the_rainforests/

7 Steps Kids Can Take to Protect the Rainforest: http://ran.org/new/kidscorner/kid_s_action/7_steps_kids_can_take/

Heifer International: http://www.heifer.org/

What is your favorite part of the Trans-Amazon Expedition?

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