An autotroph is an organism that can produce its own food. Which of the following is an autotroph?  

And the answer: Azalea.  

Photo credit: Getty Images

Organisms can be categorized into two main groups: autotrophs, which produce their own food, and heterotrophs, which consume other organisms for food. Plants fall into the first group, as they produce their own food through photosynthesis. Mammals, birds, and reptiles are examples of the second group, which rely on others for food.

While plants and animals can be broadly distinguished between "producer" and "consumer," each category comes with qualifications and distinctions that can become very specific. For example, while heterotrophs are generally the "consumer" of the food chain, herbivores (or organisms that eat plants) occupy the second level of the food chain. Meanwhile, carnivores and omnivores (organisms that eat meat) occupy the third level. Both of these primary and secondary consumers are considered heterotrophs.

There is also a third type of heterotrophic consumer: a detritivore. These organisms obtain their food source by feeding off dead and decaying plants and animals. Creatures such as worms, fungi and insects are essential to ecosystems in that they provide the recycling of nature’s waste.

Autotrophs create energy through photosynthesis. The chlorophyll in the autotrophs allows them to capture and use the sun’s energy to power their systems. Heterotrophs are unable to photosynthesize due to their lack of chlorophyll.

But that is not to say that heterotrophs do not benefit from photosynthetic processes. Heterotrophs depend on the process for oxygen, which is produced as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Further, photosynthesis nourishes the autotrophs that heterotrophs depend on to survive. While carnivores may not directly depend on photosynthetic plants to survive, they do depend on other animals that consume photosynthetic plants as a food source.

Check out this National Geographic article to learn more about nature’s producers and consumers.

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