They may not look it at face value, but freshwater ponds are extremely complex ecosystems that require a specific balancing act of biotic life.
In the wild, freshwater ponds have a natural tendency to figure out this balance without human interference and create a long-lasting ecosystem as a result.
Man-made ponds, unfortunately, aren’t so self-reliant and do require a keen understanding of how aquatic ecosystems work.
One of the biggest problems that people with garden ponds face is how organic matter decomposes.
If a pond (see also ‘3 Actions For What To Do With Your Unwanted Pond‘) doesn’t have the right balance of fish species, microbes and insects all doing their part in the decomposition of matter, then its nutrients run the risk of skyrocketing to dangerous levels.
This article will highlight the most beneficial freshwater decomposers.
Each species is particularly good at what they do and, as a result, will help you to gain back control of your pond ecosystem so that it can continue to thrive for many years to come.
What Are Pond Ecosystem Decomposers?
If you’ve ever wondered where the decaying plant and animal life goes in a pond, it’s the decomposers.
Think of them as the cleanup crew who survive by way of dead life.
The organic waste they love to devour can be anything from the smallest seed or leave, to a large fish, that, for whatever reason, didn’t manage to survive.
Decomposers will also ensure your pond looks the part by feeding on algae, moss, and other persistent growth problems.
The best thing about all this decomposing business is that it helps to maintain a healthy pond.
Without the decomposer’s dirty work, a pond’s nutrient balance would be way out of whack and all of its life would be in grave danger of dying out.
On top of being a primary consumer of waste, decomposers play another vital role in the food chain and that is being food themselves.
From fungi and bacteria to large crawling crustaceans, fish love to feed on decomposers in-between food sessions.
This variable diet helps them to live a healthy life.
As you can see, decomposers will keep an entire pond ecosystem alive and thriving. Learning about which species do what, therefore, is a very good idea indeed.
1. Aquatic Worms
Aquatic worms are great decomposers of organic matter in freshwater ponds. They will graze on all types of decaying plant matter as well as primary producers and bacteria.
There are many different species of aquatic worms and they each like to live a little differently.
Some evolved directly from marine environments while others evolved from terrestrial worm species and feature aquatic adaptations.
One cool thing that aquatic worms can do is actually grow and develop inside the body of a decaying animal.
This is great news for your pond ecosystem as these mighty little worms can break down the animal’s tissue quickly and help prevent it from rotting and stinking up the place.
Other species are actually known to increase a pond’s oxygen levels (see also ‘Oxygen Tablets For Ponds & Lakes (Are They Safe?)‘) by promoting good water flow in bottom substrates.
On top of doing their part while alive, aquatic worms can also be a great source of protein for the fish species of the deep.
However, it is not recommended to collect just any old aquatic worm that you find in a wild freshwater pond and set them free in yours.
The sudden introduction of aquatic worms could mess with the natural order of your pond and spell disaster for its balancing act.
It is a much more beneficial idea to naturalize your pond floor and wait for the worms to populate in due course.
Nematodes, turbellaria, Horsehair worms, leeches, oligochaetes, and Tubifex worms are all commendable decomposers in their own right, so naturalizing your pond for the growth of such species is a great place to start.
2. Freshwater Gastropods
Freshwater gastropods are very valuable pond decomposers.
They do wonders in the removal of algae, moss, fish food scraps, and other pond debris that has settled on the pond floor.
Think of freshwater gastropods as snails that revel in particularly moist environments.
Some are capable of living their entire life below the surface while others prefer to mix it up between land and water.
Most freshwater gastropods prefer the quiet life that a pond offers, but there are other more daring species who seek out fast-moving streams and rivers.
The species that do well in freshwater ponds include ramshorn snails, apple snails, freshwater nerites, mud snails, and Bithynia.
Each of these gastropods loves a still freshwater environment and will do their part in ensuring your pond’s decomposing matter is seen too.
Albeit maybe not as quick as you would like, because, after all, they are snails.
Unlike aquatic worms, there are some freshwater gastropods that you can be bought from reputable aquarium shops.
Aquarium shops sell these snails with the sole aim of keeping customers’ ponds and fish tanks clean.
The most common of these are apple snails which are super adaptive and grow quicker than most.
3. Insect Larvae
The larva of terrestrial insects is a great decomposer in an aquatic environment.
When you consider that they spend far longer as larvae and nymphs than they do as fully-fledged insects, it makes perfect sense.
This extended time in insect infancy can be put down to the fact that larvae need to stock up on insane amounts of nutrients in order to take on metamorphosis.
Even though insect larvae haven’t technically blossomed doesn’t mean you should count out their ability to munch down matter.
Many insect species form pincers while still in larvae form and put them to use by consuming the muscles of decaying fish.
In water, insect larvae will look a lot like grubs or worms because they will be severely lacking in any sort of appendage.
One of the most well-known insect species that lay aquatic eggs is the mosquito.
Mosquitos seek out stagnant water (that is preferably warm) for their eggs to rest.
If you use a pond water heater (see also ‘How To Heat A Pond In Winter’) to keep your fish alive through the winter then mosquitos will naturally be drawn to this.
Their larvae will last for up to two weeks in a pond and will seek to feed on pond microbes and other decaying organic matter in that time.
However, it’s not all good news for mosquito larvae as fish species have a particular interest in them and will gobble them up as a quick lunch when there’s little else on offer.
Other insect larvae that pupate in freshwater and are considered valiant decomposers include midge fly larvae, dragonfly larvae, mayfly larvae, and alderfly larvae.
Each of these species will feed on decaying plant and animal matter.
You just have to hope that before they get the chance to metamorph into fully-fledged insects your fish gobble them down.
Because nobody wants a mosquito infestation hovering around their garden and home.
4. Aquatic Insects
Although aquatic insects are considered rare, there are plenty of semi-aquatic species that can make light work of a pond’s decaying matter.
These semi-aquatics have adaptations that give them the ability to breathe underwater and seek out food sources while down there.
Not only that, but their hybrid evolution allows them the chance to breed on or even underneath the water.
This is super beneficial for the survival of their eggs and soon-to-be larvae.
It is this ability to both hunt and breed underwater that gives them a clear advantage over common terrestrial insects.
Along with being on clean-up duty, semi-aquatic insects are a great food source for fish species that seek protein-rich prey.
This makes aquatic insects a versatile and beneficial addition to any thriving pond ecosystem.
In theory, a healthy pond should attract such insects and they will soon find their position in the ecosystem and food chain.
If your pond is lacking in semi-aquatics then you may need to have a closer look as to why.
Some of the big players in the semi-aquatic insect game include water striders, water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles, and rifle beetles.
Some of these species are strict herbivores while others are head-over-wings for meat.
Carnivorous semi-aquatic insects will look to feed on other species’ larvae, small insects, and zooplankton.
Bivalves are considered the ultimate filter-feeders.
If your pond has an excessive amount of nutrients and organic matter, you can make a solid assumption that a bunch of bivalves will show up and get to work.
Although bivalve species tend to do better in saltwater, there are still enough species that thrive in freshwater ponds for you to be on the lookout for them.
Bivalves have a huge range in size and when fully grown, can be 30mm and up to 20 cm.
Obviously, larger bivalve species generally fare better in life, but the miniature species can be just as helpful in the decomposition of pond matter.
Why? because, as always, there is strength in numbers and mini-species like pea clams and fingernail clams are born to multiple.
Unfortunately, as a result of invasive species, deforestation, and destructive anthropogenic activities, many bivalve species are now on the endangered list.
This is bad news for water quality across the world as bivalves offer a wealth of services to aquatic ecosystems.
Bivalves in abundance are a great indicator of a healthy waterway.
Some of the most valuable bivalve species that you want in your home pond include swan mussels, the previously mentioned pea clams, and freshwater pearl mussels.
Each of these species is particularly good at filter-feeding and bringing nutrient levels back down to safe levels.
6. Opportunistic Fish
Opportunistic fish aren’t fussy. Whether it’s algae, small crustaceans, or the decaying bodies of other fish, these species will devour it all.
Three of the most popular species to introduce into a freshwater pond are loaches, catfish, and plecos.
Not only will they munch on anything and everything that has been discarded on the pond bottom, but they will also seek out awkward to reach fish food and other wayward organic matter.
However, you can’t rely on opportunistic fish to do all the dirty work.
While they may look like they are consuming a large amount of matter, some species will only consume the nutritious biofilm and spit it back out again.
This is why other smaller decomposers are necessary for a thriving pond ecosystem alongside the opportunists. Together they can do great things.
Crustaceans aren’t just delicious to eat, while alive, they can play a vital role in the health of aquatic environments.
Freshwater crustaceans are super diverse creatures that can be invisible to the naked eye or big enough to eat their meat (watch out freshwater shrimp).
The beauty of freshwater crustaceans is that they aren’t too picky as to what they will eat.
Whether it’s a smaller crustacean, decomposing plant matter, or even algae, there aren’t many food types that crustaceans won’t take a nibble on.
Microscopic crustaceans species like copepods, isopods, and amphipods are considered scavengers and will generally feed on the decaying remains of animals and plants if they can get to them first.
As is the cycle of life, freshwater crustaceans are very likely to become prey for larger animals in the pond.
Just as many humans enjoy sucking the flesh from a lobster claw, so do fish and bird species.
Some predators are so well accustomed to devouring crustaceans that their digestive system is able to break down their hard shells without a qualm about it.
8. Amphibian Larvae
You didn’t think insect larvae were the only larvae to eat their way through decomposing matter now, did you?
Amphibian larvae can also be an effective decomposer of such matter, especially during their first weeks of life.
Sure, they don’t have pincers to slice and dice through animal meat, but they can still make light work of dead plants, algae, and tiny pieces of meat.
Once most amphibian larvae reach a certain age (usually a few weeks) they will begin to reject decaying matter for the finer foods in life.
Protein-rich foods and live prey will become their diet of choice.
This is a big reason why they can develop into bona fide bouncing frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders.
For this reason, they are not regarded as having an active decomposer role, more of a flinting one.
Often it’s the littlest decomposer who can have the biggest impact, and in the case of bacteria, nothing is closer to the truth.
Where amphibian larvae aren’t considered primary decomposers, bacteria are as primary as pond ecosystem decomposers get.
Although humans can’t actually see them on account of their microscopic stature, never doubt their presence.
There isn’t a pond on this planet that doesn’t have some form of bacteria on its surface.
Bacteria are essentially tiny little microbes that take up residence on just about every organic and inorganic plant, animal, and item across the pond and back again.
Bacteria are probably the most important element in every ecosystem.
Because no matter how hungry the other decomposers are on this list, they will never match the rate at which bacteria produce and churn through matter.
Bacteria are also super beneficial to a pond ecosystem due to their leading role in its nitrogen cycle.
Their unrivaled ability to convert nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia into byproducts that aren’t harmful is key to a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all smiles with bacteria.
There are rare events where a pond will nutrient load as a result of something unusual happening like excessively high temperatures or a mass die-off of fish.
This kind of event can throw a pond ecosystem out of whack and, in turn, allow bacteria to multiply in hazardous amounts.
Blue-green algae is a highly toxic alga that will do a very good job of suffocating all pond life.
This kind of example shows that, although bacteria are necessary for good pond health, the right species must be in place and their concentrations must be balanced.
In a similar vein to bacteria, fungi colonies look to expand by consuming matter and assimilating freed-up nutrients in the water.
Even though they don’t have legs or fins, fungi are considered great travelers of both aquatic and land environments.
This is the case because of their life cycle which promotes spore dispersion over great distances.
Fungi have a particular taste for decaying plant matter in order to multiply and in particular pond leaf litter.
Even though they don’t get the accolades and kudos that other decomposers do, there are an estimated 3,000 fungi species that can grow in freshwater environments.
For this reason, they are a valuable part of a healthy pond and are a good sign that there’s an order under your pond’s surface.
What Are Some Examples Of Pond Decomposers?
Now that you know the various types of decomposers that will help your pond become nutrient-balanced, it’s time to get a little more specific.
Learning about these decomposing species and their habits will give you a better idea of their capabilities in a home pond scenario.
Horsehair worms are long and thin parasitic worms that require an arthropod host to complete their life cycle.
Often, they will actually kill their host which also makes them obligate parasitoids.
Horsehair worms are pretty hardy worms that can travel across terrestrial substrate as well as make their way in water bodies.
Nematodes are free-living roundworms that can be found in soil, marine, and freshwater ecosystems.
They are regularly tasked with killing pests like slugs, weevils, and ants on organic farms.
Nematodes are regarded as being an integral part of the overall food chain within freshwater ecosystems.
Ramshorn snails are a super popular choice for decomposers in both pond and fish tank environments.
It isn’t uncommon to find ramshorn snails for sale in fish shops and fish owners will regularly breed them as well.
This popularity is put down to their impressive decomposing abilities.
Whether it be discarded fish food, fish carcasses, decaying plants, or any other decaying matter for that matter, you can count on ramshorn snails getting to work.
These amphibious snails are quite unique in that they are the proud owners of both gills and lungs.
They are also the largest freshwater snails on the planet so they should have no trouble getting to the bottom of your pond and giving it a tidy up.
If you’ve ever noticed an insect dancing across your pond, then there’s a good chance it was a water strider.
These light-footed decomposers have adapted to life on the water by using its surface tension to their advantage.
Although they like to be on the water, they actually feed by diving down and seeing what’s on the menu.
They facilitate breathing underwater by trapping air in fine hairs which can be found all over their bodies.
Water boatmen are useful to have paddling around your pond for a couple of reasons. First, they are a particularly good source of protein for large pond fish who fancy coming up for a snack.
They also love to feed on algae and other aquatic plants. Yes, this means that your pond lilies could get nibbled on, but it also ensures algal levels will be kept under control.
Riffle beetles are highly beneficial to a home pond because of their decomposing credentials.
Riffle beetles are fussy eaters and they will happily get stuck into any and all floating debris, decaying plant matter, and softened wood that just so happens to settle on the edge of your pond.
If there’s not much debris to devour on any given day then they will also feed on algae and moss.
This makes them one of the most valuable members of any pond cleanup crew.
So there you have it. You now know which decomposers you should invite to your pond ecosystem party.
As you already know, a thriving pond is built off the back of decomposers doing the dirty work.
They clean up the decay that would otherwise mess with a pond’s fine balance of nutrients.
We hope this article has been an eye-opener into the weird and wonderful world of freshwater decomposers.