Energy in the Environment

Describe how organisms acquire energy

Ecosystem is a term that you’ve probably heard before—but just what is an ecosystem? In this section, we’ll learn about ecosystems and how energy moves within a system. This video provides a quick introduction to the concepts we’ll discuss.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the methods that ecologists use to study ecosystem structure and dynamics
  • Differentiate between food chains and food webs and recognize the importance of each
  • Describe how energy flows through ecosystems

Ecology of Ecosystems

Life in an ecosystem is often about competition for limited resources, a characteristic of the theory of natural selection. Competition in communities (all living things within specific habitats) is observed both within species and among different species. The resources for which organisms compete include organic material from living or previously living organisms, sunlight, and mineral nutrients, which provide the energy for living processes and the matter to make up organisms’ physical structures. Other critical factors influencing community dynamics are the components of its physical and geographic environment: a habitat’s latitude, amount of rainfall, topography (elevation), and available species. These are all important environmental variables that determine which organisms can exist within a particular area.

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms and their interactions with their abiotic (non-living) environment. Ecosystems can be small, such as the tide pools found near the rocky shores of many oceans, or large, such as the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil (Figure 1).

Left photo shows a rocky tide pool with seaweed and snails. Right photo shows the Amazon Rainforest.

Figure 1. A (a) tidal pool ecosystem in Matinicus Island in Maine is a small ecosystem, while the (b) Amazon Rainforest in Brazil is a large ecosystem. (credit a: modification of work by “takomabibelot”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Ivan Mlinaric)

Ecosystems are complex with many interacting parts. They are routinely exposed to various disturbances, or changes in the environment that effect their compositions: yearly variations in rainfall and temperature and the slower processes of plant growth, which may take several years. Many of these disturbances are a result of natural processes. For example, when lightning causes a forest fire and destroys part of a forest ecosystem, the ground is eventually populated by grasses, then by bushes and shrubs, and later by mature trees, restoring the forest to its former state. The impact of environmental disturbances caused by human activities is as important as the changes wrought by natural processes. Human agricultural practices, air pollution, acid rain, global deforestation, overfishing, eutrophication, oil spills, and illegal dumping on land and into the ocean are all issues of concern to conservationists.

Equilibrium is the steady state of an ecosystem where all organisms are in balance with their environment and with each other. In ecology, two parameters are used to measure changes in ecosystems: resistance and resilience. The ability of an ecosystem to remain at equilibrium in spite of disturbances is called resistance. The speed at which an ecosystem recovers equilibrium after being disturbed, called its resilience. Ecosystem resistance and resilience are especially important when considering human impact. The nature of an ecosystem may change to such a degree that it can lose its resilience entirely. This process can lead to the complete destruction or irreversible altering of the ecosystem.

Three-spined Stickleback

It is well established by the theory of natural selection that changes in the environment play a major role in the evolution of species within an ecosystem. However, little is known about how the evolution of species within an ecosystem can alter the ecosystem environment. In 2009, Dr. Luke Harmon, from the University of Idaho in Moscow, published a paper that for the first time showed that the evolution of organisms into subspecies can have direct effects on their ecosystem environment.

 Photo shows two small fish swimming above a rocky bottom.

Figure 2. The three-spined stickleback evolved from a saltwater fish to freshwater fish. (credit: Barrett Paul, USFWS)

The three-spines stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) is a freshwater fish that evolved from a saltwater fish to live in freshwater lakes about 10,000 years ago, which is considered a recent development in evolutionary time. Over the last 10,000 years, these freshwater fish then became isolated from each other in different lakes. Depending on which lake population was studied, findings showed that these sticklebacks then either remained as one species or evolved into two species. The divergence of species was made possible by their use of different areas of the pond for feeding called micro niches.

Dr. Harmon and his team created artificial pond microcosms in 250-gallon tanks and added muck from freshwater ponds as a source of zooplankton and other invertebrates to sustain the fish. In different experimental tanks they introduced one species of stickleback from either a single-species or double-species lake.

Over time, the team observed that some of the tanks bloomed with algae while others did not. This puzzled the scientists, and they decided to measure the water’s dissolved organic carbon (DOC), which consists of mostly large molecules of decaying organic matter that give pond-water its slightly brownish color. It turned out that the water from the tanks with two-species fish contained larger particles of DOC (and hence darker water) than water with single-species fish. This increase in DOC blocked the sunlight and prevented algal blooming. Conversely, the water from the single-species tank contained smaller DOC particles, allowing more sunlight penetration to fuel the algal blooms.

This change in the environment, which is due to the different feeding habits of the stickleback species in each lake type, probably has a great impact on the survival of other species in these ecosystems, especially other photosynthetic organisms. Thus, the study shows that, at least in these ecosystems, the environment and the evolution of populations have reciprocal effects that may now be factored into simulation models.

Research into Ecosystem Dynamics

The study of the changes in ecosystem structure caused by changes in the environment (disturbances) or by internal forces is called ecosystem dynamics. Ecosystems are characterized using a variety of research methodologies. Some ecologists study ecosystems using controlled experimental systems, while some study entire ecosystems in their natural state, and others use both approaches.

A holistic ecosystem model attempts to quantify the composition, interaction, and dynamics of entire ecosystems; it is the most representative of the ecosystem in its natural state. A food web is an example of a holistic ecosystem model. However, this type of study is limited by time and expense, as well as the fact that it is neither feasible nor ethical to do experiments on large natural ecosystems. To quantify all different species in an ecosystem and the dynamics in their habitat is difficult, especially when studying large habitats such as the Amazon Rainforest, which covers 1.4 billion acres (5.5 million km2) of the Earth’s surface.

For these reasons, scientists study ecosystems under more controlled conditions. Experimental systems usually involve either partitioning a part of a natural ecosystem that can be used for experiments, termed a mesocosm, or by re-creating an ecosystem entirely in an indoor or outdoor laboratory environment, which is referred to as a microcosm. A major limitation to these approaches is that removing individual organisms from their natural ecosystem or altering a natural ecosystem through partitioning may change the dynamics of the ecosystem. These changes are often due to differences in species numbers and diversity and also to environment alterations caused by partitioning (mesocosm) or re-creating (microcosm) the natural habitat. Thus, these types of experiments are not totally predictive of changes that would occur in the ecosystem from which they were gathered.

As both of these approaches have their limitations, some ecologists suggest that results from these experimental systems should be used only in conjunction with holistic ecosystem studies to obtain the most representative data about ecosystem structure, function, and dynamics.

Scientists use the data generated by these experimental studies to develop ecosystem models that demonstrate the structure and dynamics of ecosystems. Three basic types of ecosystem modeling are routinely used in research and ecosystem management: a conceptual model, an analytical model, and a simulation model. A conceptual model is an ecosystem model that consists of flow charts to show interactions of different compartments of the living and nonliving components of the ecosystem. A conceptual model describes ecosystem structure and dynamics and shows how environmental disturbances affect the ecosystem; however, its ability to predict the effects of these disturbances is limited. Analytical and simulation models, in contrast, are mathematical methods of describing ecosystems that are indeed capable of predicting the effects of potential environmental changes without direct experimentation, although with some limitations as to accuracy. An analytical model is an ecosystem model that is created using simple mathematical formulas to predict the effects of environmental disturbances on ecosystem structure and dynamics. A simulation model is an ecosystem model that is created using complex computer algorithms to holistically model ecosystems and to predict the effects of environmental disturbances on ecosystem structure and dynamics. Ideally, these models are accurate enough to determine which components of the ecosystem are particularly sensitive to disturbances, and they can serve as a guide to ecosystem managers (such as conservation ecologists or fisheries biologists) in the practical maintenance of ecosystem health.

Conceptual Models

Conceptual models are useful for describing ecosystem structure and dynamics and for demonstrating the relationships between different organisms in a community and their environment. Conceptual models are usually depicted graphically as flow charts. The organisms and their resources are grouped into specific compartments with arrows showing the relationship and transfer of energy or nutrients between them. Thus, these diagrams are sometimes called compartment models.

To model the cycling of mineral nutrients, organic and inorganic nutrients are subdivided into those that are bioavailable (ready to be incorporated into biological macromolecules) and those that are not. For example, in a terrestrial ecosystem near a deposit of coal, carbon will be available to the plants of this ecosystem as carbon dioxide gas in a short-term period, not from the carbon-rich coal itself. However, over a longer period, microorganisms capable of digesting coal will incorporate its carbon or release it as natural gas (methane, CH4), changing this unavailable organic source into an available one. This conversion is greatly accelerated by the combustion of fossil fuels by humans, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is thought to be a major factor in the rise of the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the industrial age. The carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels is produced faster than photosynthetic organisms can use it. This process is intensified by the reduction of photosynthetic trees because of worldwide deforestation. Most scientists agree that high atmospheric carbon dioxide is a major cause of global climate change.

Analytical and Simulation Models

The major limitation of conceptual models is their inability to predict the consequences of changes in ecosystem species and/or environment. Ecosystems are dynamic entities and subject to a variety of abiotic and biotic disturbances caused by natural forces and/or human activity. Ecosystems altered from their initial equilibrium state can often recover from such disturbances and return to a state of equilibrium. As most ecosystems are subject to periodic disturbances and are often in a state of change, they are usually either moving toward or away from their equilibrium state. There are many of these equilibrium states among the various components of an ecosystem, which affects the ecosystem overall. Furthermore, as humans have the ability to greatly and rapidly alter the species content and habitat of an ecosystem, the need for predictive models that enable understanding of how ecosystems respond to these changes becomes more crucial.

Analytical models often use simple, linear components of ecosystems, such as food chains, and are known to be complex mathematically; therefore, they require a significant amount of mathematical knowledge and expertise. Although analytical models have great potential, their simplification of complex ecosystems is thought to limit their accuracy. Simulation models that use computer programs are better able to deal with the complexities of ecosystem structure.

A recent development in simulation modeling uses supercomputers to create and run individual-based simulations, which accounts for the behavior of individual organisms and their effects on the ecosystem as a whole. These simulations are considered to be the most accurate and predictive of the complex responses of ecosystems to disturbances.

Visit The Darwin Project to view a variety of ecosystem models.

Food Chains and Food Webs

The term “food chain” is sometimes used metaphorically to describe human social situations. In this sense, food chains are thought of as a competition for survival, such as “who eats whom?” Someone eats and someone is eaten. Therefore, it is not surprising that in our competitive “dog-eat-dog” society, individuals who are considered successful are seen as being at the top of the food chain, consuming all others for their benefit, whereas the less successful are seen as being at the bottom.

 In this illustration the bottom trophic level is the primary producer, which is green algae. The primary consumers are mollusks, or snails. The secondary consumers are small fish called slimy sculpin. The tertiary and apex consumer is Chinook salmon.

Figure 3. These are the trophic levels of a food chain in Lake Ontario at the United States-Canada border. Energy and nutrients flow from photosynthetic green algae at the bottom to the top of the food chain: the Chinook salmon.

The scientific understanding of a food chain is more precise than in its everyday usage. In ecology, a food chain is a linear sequence of organisms through which nutrients and energy pass: primary producers, primary consumers, and higher-level consumers are used to describe ecosystem structure and dynamics. There is a single path through the chain. Each organism in a food chain occupies what is called a trophic level. Depending on their role as producers or consumers, species or groups of species can be assigned to various trophic levels.

In many ecosystems, the bottom of the food chain consists of photosynthetic organisms (plants and/or phytoplankton), which are called primary producers. The organisms that consume the primary producers are herbivores: the primary consumers. Secondary consumers are usually carnivores that eat the primary consumers. Tertiary consumers are carnivores that eat other carnivores. Higher-level consumers feed on the next lower tropic levels, and so on, up to the organisms at the top of the food chain: the apex consumers. In the Lake Ontario food chain shown in Figure 3, the Chinook salmon is the apex consumer at the top of this food chain.

One major factor that limits the length of food chains is energy. Energy is lost as heat between each trophic level due to the second law of thermodynamics. Thus, after a limited number of trophic energy transfers, the amount of energy remaining in the food chain may not be great enough to support viable populations at yet a higher trophic level.

The loss of energy between trophic levels is illustrated by the pioneering studies of Howard T. Odum in the Silver Springs, Florida, ecosystem in the 1940s (Figure 4). The primary producers generated 20,819 kcal/m2/yr (kilocalories per square meter per year), the primary consumers generated 3368 kcal/m2/yr, the secondary consumers generated 383 kcal/m2/yr, and the tertiary consumers only generated 21 kcal/m2/yr. Thus, there is little energy remaining for another level of consumers in this ecosystem.

 Graph shows energy content in different trophic levels. The energy content of primary producers is over 20,000 kilocalories per meter squared per year. The energy content of primary consumers is much smaller, about 3,400 kilocalories per meter squared per year. The energy content of secondary consumers is 383 kilocalories per meter squared per year, and the energy content of tertiary consumers is only 21 kilocalories per meter squared per year.

Figure 4. The relative energy in trophic levels in a Silver Springs, Florida, ecosystem is shown. Each trophic level has less energy available and supports fewer organisms at the next level.

There is a one problem when using food chains to accurately describe most ecosystems. Even when all organisms are grouped into appropriate trophic levels, some of these organisms can feed on species from more than one trophic level; likewise, some of these organisms can be eaten by species from multiple trophic levels. In other words, the linear model of ecosystems, the food chain, is not completely descriptive of ecosystem structure. A holistic model—which accounts for all the interactions between different species and their complex interconnected relationships with each other and with the environment—is a more accurate and descriptive model for ecosystems. A food web is a graphic representation of a holistic, non-linear web of primary producers, primary consumers, and higher-level consumers used to describe ecosystem structure and dynamics (Figure 5).

 The bottom level of the illustration shows primary producers, which include diatoms, green algae, blue-green algae, flagellates, and rotifers. The next level includes the primary consumers that eat primary producers. These include calanoids, waterfleas, and cyclopoids, rotifers and amphipods. The shrimp also eats primary producers. Primary consumers are in turn eaten by secondary consumers, which are typically small fish. The small fish are eaten by larger fish, the tertiary, or apex consumers. The yellow perch, a secondary consumer, eats small fish within its own trophic level. All fish are eaten by the sea lamprey. Thus, the food web is complex with interwoven layers.

Figure 5. This food web shows the interactions between organisms across trophic levels in the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Primary producers are outlined in green, primary consumers in orange, secondary consumers in blue, and tertiary (apex) consumers in purple. Arrows point from an organism that is consumed to the organism that consumes it. Notice how some lines point to more than one trophic level. For example, the opossum shrimp eats both primary producers and primary consumers. (credit: NOAA, GLERL)

A comparison of the two types of structural ecosystem models shows strength in both. Food chains are more flexible for analytical modeling, are easier to follow, and are easier to experiment with, whereas food web models more accurately represent ecosystem structure and dynamics, and data can be directly used as input for simulation modeling.

Head to this online interactive simulator to investigate food web function. In the Interactive Labs box, under Food Web, click Step 1. Read the instructions first, and then click Step 2 for additional instructions. When you are ready to create a simulation, in the upper-right corner of the Interactive Labs box, click OPEN SIMULATOR.

Two general types of food webs are often shown interacting within a single ecosystem. A grazing food web (such as the Lake Ontario food web in Figure 5) has plants or other photosynthetic organisms at its base, followed by herbivores and various carnivores. A detrital food web consists of a base of organisms that feed on decaying organic matter (dead organisms), called decomposers or detritivores. These organisms are usually bacteria or fungi that recycle organic material back into the biotic part of the ecosystem as they themselves are consumed by other organisms. As all ecosystems require a method to recycle material from dead organisms, most grazing food webs have an associated detrital food web. For example, in a meadow ecosystem, plants may support a grazing food web of different organisms, primary and other levels of consumers, while at the same time supporting a detrital food web of bacteria, fungi, and detrivorous invertebrates feeding off dead plants and animals.

Consequences of Food Webs: Biological Magnification

One of the most important environmental consequences of ecosystem dynamics is biomagnification. Biomagnification is the increasing concentration of persistent, toxic substances in organisms at each trophic level, from the primary producers to the apex consumers. Many substances have been shown to bioaccumulate, including classical studies with the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which was published in the 1960s bestseller, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. DDT was a commonly used pesticide before its dangers became known. In some aquatic ecosystems, organisms from each trophic level consumed many organisms of the lower level, which caused DDT to increase in birds (apex consumers) that ate fish. Thus, the birds accumulated sufficient amounts of DDT to cause fragility in their eggshells. This effect increased egg breakage during nesting and was shown to have adverse effects on these bird populations. The use of DDT was banned in the United States in the 1970s.

 The illustration is a graph that plots total PCBs in micrograms per gram of dry weight versus nitrogen-15 enrichment, shows that PCBs become increasingly concentrated at higher trophic levels. The slope of the graph becomes increasingly steep from phytoplankton (the primary consumer) to walleye (the tertiary consumer).

Figure 6. This chart shows the PCB concentrations found at the various trophic levels in the Saginaw Bay ecosystem of Lake Huron. Numbers on the x-axis reflect enrichment with heavy isotopes of nitrogen (15N), which is a marker for increasing trophic level. Notice that the fish in the higher trophic levels accumulate more PCBs than those in lower trophic levels. (credit: Patricia Van Hoof, NOAA, GLERL)

Other substances that biomagnify are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were used in coolant liquids in the United States until their use was banned in 1979, and heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. These substances were best studied in aquatic ecosystems, where fish species at different trophic levels accumulate toxic substances brought through the ecosystem by the primary producers. As illustrated in a study performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron (Figure 6), PCB concentrations increased from the ecosystem’s primary producers (phytoplankton) through the different trophic levels of fish species. The apex consumer (walleye) has more than four times the amount of PCBs compared to phytoplankton. Also, based on results from other studies, birds that eat these fish may have PCB levels at least one order of magnitude higher than those found in the lake fish.

Other concerns have been raised by the accumulation of heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium, in certain types of seafood. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that pregnant women and young children should not consume any swordfish, shark, king mackerel, or tilefish because of their high mercury content. These individuals are advised to eat fish low in mercury: salmon, tilapia, shrimp, pollock, and catfish. Biomagnification is a good example of how ecosystem dynamics can affect our everyday lives, even influencing the food we eat.

Energy Flow through Ecosystems

All living things require energy in one form or another. Energy is required by most complex metabolic pathways (often in the form of adenosine triphosphate, ATP), especially those responsible for building large molecules from smaller compounds, and life itself is an energy-driven process. Living organisms would not be able to assemble macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and complex carbohydrates) from their monomeric subunits without a constant energy input.

It is important to understand how organisms acquire energy and how that energy is passed from one organism to another through food webs and their constituent food chains. Food webs illustrate how energy flows directionally through ecosystems, including how efficiently organisms acquire it, use it, and how much remains for use by other organisms of the food web.

How Organisms Acquire Energy in a Food Web

Energy is acquired by living things in three ways: photosynthesis, chemosynthesis, and the consumption and digestion of other living or previously living organisms by heterotrophs.

Photosynthetic and chemosynthetic organisms are both grouped into a category known as autotrophs: organisms capable of synthesizing their own food (more specifically, capable of using inorganic carbon as a carbon source). Photosynthetic autotrophs (photoautotrophs) use sunlight as an energy source, whereas chemosynthetic autotrophs (chemoautotrophs) use inorganic molecules as an energy source. Autotrophs are critical for all ecosystems. Without these organisms, energy would not be available to other living organisms and life itself would not be possible.

 Photo shows shrimp, lobster, and white crabs crawling on a rocky ocean floor littered with mussels.

Figure 7. Swimming shrimp, a few squat lobsters, and hundreds of vent mussels are seen at a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the ocean. As no sunlight penetrates to this depth, the ecosystem is supported by chemoautotrophic bacteria and organic material that sinks from the ocean’s surface. This picture was taken in 2006 at the submerged NW Eifuku volcano off the coast of Japan by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The summit of this highly active volcano lies 1535 m below the surface.

Photoautotrophs, such as plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria, serve as the energy source for a majority of the world’s ecosystems. These ecosystems are often described by grazing food webs. Photoautotrophs harness the solar energy of the sun by converting it to chemical energy in the form of ATP (and NADP). The energy stored in ATP is used to synthesize complex organic molecules, such as glucose.

Chemoautotrophs are primarily bacteria that are found in rare ecosystems where sunlight is not available, such as in those associated with dark caves or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean (Figure 7). Many chemoautotrophs in hydrothermal vents use hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is released from the vents as a source of chemical energy. This allows chemoautotrophs to synthesize complex organic molecules, such as glucose, for their own energy and in turn supplies energy to the rest of the ecosystem.

Productivity within Trophic Levels

Productivity within an ecosystem can be defined as the percentage of energy entering the ecosystem incorporated into biomass in a particular trophic level. Biomass is the total mass, in a unit area at the time of measurement, of living or previously living organisms within a trophic level. Ecosystems have characteristic amounts of biomass at each trophic level. For example, in the English Channel ecosystem the primary producers account for a biomass of 4 g/m2 (grams per meter squared), while the primary consumers exhibit a biomass of 21 g/m2.

The productivity of the primary producers is especially important in any ecosystem because these organisms bring energy to other living organisms by photoautotrophy or chemoautotrophy. The rate at which photosynthetic primary producers incorporate energy from the sun is called gross primary productivity. An example of gross primary productivity is shown in the compartment diagram of energy flow in Howard T. Odum’s classical study of the Silver Springs, Florida, holistic ecosystem in the mid-twentieth century (Figure 8). This study shows the energy content and transfer between various ecosystem compartments. In this ecosystem, the total energy accumulated by the primary producers (gross primary productivity) was shown to be 20,810 kcal/m2/yr.

 Flow chart shows that the ecosystem absorbs 1,700,00 calories per meter squared per year of sunlight. Primary producers have a gross productivity of 20,810 calories per meter squared per year. 13,187 calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat, so the net productivity of primary producers is 7,618 calories per meter squared per year. 4,250 calories per meter squared per year is passed on to decomposers, and the remaining 3,368 calories per meter squared per year is passed on to primary consumers. Thus, the gross productivity of primary consumers is 3,368 calories per meter squared per year. 2,265 calories per meter squared per year is lost to heat and respiration, resulting in a net productivity for primary consumers of 1,103 calories per meter squared per year. 720 calories per meter squared per year is lost to decomposers, and 383 calories per meter squared per year becomes the gross productivity of secondary consumers. 272 calories per meter squared per year is lost to heat and respiration, so the net productivity for secondary consumers is 111 calories per meter squared per year. 90 calories per meter squared per year is lost to decomposers, and the remaining 21 calories per meter squared per year becomes the gross productivity of tertiary consumers. Sixteen calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat, so the net productivity of tertiary consumers is 5 calories per meter squared per year. All this energy is lost to decomposers. In total, decomposers use 5,060 calories per meter squared per year of energy, and 20,810 calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat.

Figure 8. This conceptual model shows the flow of energy through a spring ecosystem in Silver Springs, Florida. Notice that the energy decreases with each increase in trophic level.

Practice Question

Why do you think the value for gross productivity of the primary producers is the same as the value for total heat and respiration (20,810 kcal/m2/yr)?

Because all organisms need to use some of this energy for their own functions (like respiration and resulting metabolic heat loss) scientists often refer to the net primary productivity of an ecosystem. Net primary productivity is the energy that remains in the primary producers after accounting for the organisms’ respiration and heat loss. The net productivity is then available to the primary consumers at the next trophic level. In our Silver Spring example, 13,187 of the 20,810 kcal/m2/yr were used for respiration or were lost as heat, leaving 7,632 kcal/m2/yr of energy for use by the primary consumers.

Ecological Efficiency

As illustrated in Figure 8, large amounts of energy are lost from the ecosystem from one trophic level to the next level as energy flows from the primary producers through the various trophic levels of consumers and decomposers. The main reason for this loss is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that whenever energy is converted from one form to another, there is a tendency toward disorder (entropy) in the system. In biologic systems, this means a great deal of energy is lost as metabolic heat when the organisms from one trophic level consume the next level. In the Silver Springs ecosystem example (Figure 8), we see that the primary consumers produced 1103 kcal/m2/yr from the 7618 kcal/m2/yr of energy available to them from the primary producers. The measurement of energy transfer efficiency between two successive trophic levels is termed the trophic level transfer efficiency (TLTE) and is defined by the formula:

[latex]\text{TLTE}=\frac{\text{production at present trophic level}}{\text{production at previous trophic level}}\times{100}[/latex]

In Silver Springs, the TLTE between the first two trophic levels was approximately 14.8 percent. The low efficiency of energy transfer between trophic levels is usually the major factor that limits the length of food chains observed in a food web. The fact is, after four to six energy transfers, there is not enough energy left to support another trophic level. Returning to the Lake Ontario example (shown in Figure 9), only three energy transfers occurred between the primary producer, (green algae), and the apex consumer (Chinook salmon).

The bottom level of the illustration shows primary producers, which include diatoms, green algae, blue-green algae, flagellates, and rotifers. The next level includes the primary consumers that eat primary producers. These include calanoids, waterfleas, and cyclopoids, rotifers and amphipods. The shrimp also eats primary producers. Primary consumers are in turn eaten by secondary consumers, which are typically small fish. The small fish are eaten by larger fish, the tertiary, or apex consumers. The yellow perch, a secondary consumer, eats small fish within its own trophic level. All fish are eaten by the sea lamprey. Thus, the food web is complex with interwoven layers.

Figure 9. This food web shows the interactions between organisms across trophic levels in the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Primary producers are outlined in green, primary consumers in orange, secondary consumers in blue, and tertiary (apex) consumers in purple. Arrows point from an organism that is consumed to the organism that consumes it. Notice how some lines point to more than one trophic level. For example, the opossum shrimp eats both primary producers and primary consumers. (credit: NOAA, GLERL)

Ecologists have many different methods of measuring energy transfers within ecosystems. Some transfers are easier or more difficult to measure depending on the complexity of the ecosystem and how much access scientists have to observe the ecosystem. In other words, some ecosystems are more difficult to study than others, and sometimes the quantification of energy transfers has to be estimated.

Another main parameter that is important in characterizing energy flow within an ecosystem is the net production efficiency. Net production efficiency (NPE) allows ecologists to quantify how efficiently organisms of a particular trophic level incorporate the energy they receive into biomass; it is calculated using the following formula:

[latex]\text{NPE}=\frac{\text{net consumer productivity}}{\text{assimilation}}\times{100}[/latex]

Net consumer productivity is the energy content available to the organisms of the next trophic level. Assimilation is the biomass (energy content generated per unit area) of the present trophic level after accounting for the energy lost due to incomplete ingestion of food, energy used for respiration, and energy lost as waste. Incomplete ingestion refers to the fact that some consumers eat only a part of their food. For example, when a lion kills an antelope, it will eat everything except the hide and bones. The lion is missing the energy-rich bone marrow inside the bone, so the lion does not make use of all the calories its prey could provide.

Thus, NPE measures how efficiently each trophic level uses and incorporates the energy from its food into biomass to fuel the next trophic level. In general, cold-blooded animals (ectotherms), such as invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, use less of the energy they obtain for respiration and heat than warm-blooded animals (endotherms), such as birds and mammals. The extra heat generated in endotherms, although an advantage in terms of the activity of these organisms in colder environments, is a major disadvantage in terms of NPE. Therefore, many endotherms have to eat more often than ectotherms to get the energy they need for survival. In general, NPE for ectotherms is an order of magnitude (10x) higher than for endotherms. For example, the NPE for a caterpillar eating leaves has been measured at 18 percent, whereas the NPE for a squirrel eating acorns may be as low as 1.6 percent.

The inefficiency of energy use by warm-blooded animals has broad implications for the world’s food supply. It is widely accepted that the meat industry uses large amounts of crops to feed livestock, and because the NPE is low, much of the energy from animal feed is lost. For example, it costs about 1¢ to produce 1000 dietary calories (kcal) of corn or soybeans, but approximately $0.19 to produce a similar number of calories growing cattle for beef consumption. The same energy content of milk from cattle is also costly, at approximately $0.16 per 1000 kcal. Much of this difference is due to the low NPE of cattle. Thus, there has been a growing movement worldwide to promote the consumption of non-meat and non-dairy foods so that less energy is wasted feeding animals for the meat industry.

Ecological Pyramids

The structure of ecosystems can be visualized with ecological pyramids, which were first described by the pioneering studies of Charles Elton in the 1920s. Ecological pyramids show the relative amounts of various parameters (such as number of organisms, energy, and biomass) across trophic levels.

Pyramids of numbers can be either upright or inverted, depending on the ecosystem. As shown in Figure 10, typical grassland during the summer has a base of many plants and the numbers of organisms decrease at each trophic level. However, during the summer in a temperate forest, the base of the pyramid consists of few trees compared with the number of primary consumers, mostly insects. Because trees are large, they have great photosynthetic capability, and dominate other plants in this ecosystem to obtain sunlight. Even in smaller numbers, primary producers in forests are still capable of supporting other trophic levels.

Another way to visualize ecosystem structure is with pyramids of biomass. This pyramid measures the amount of energy converted into living tissue at the different trophic levels. Using the Silver Springs ecosystem example, this data exhibits an upright biomass pyramid (Figure 10), whereas the pyramid from the English Channel example is inverted. The plants (primary producers) of the Silver Springs ecosystem make up a large percentage of the biomass found there. However, the phytoplankton in the English Channel example make up less biomass than the primary consumers, the zooplankton. As with inverted pyramids of numbers, this inverted pyramid is not due to a lack of productivity from the primary producers, but results from the high turnover rate of the phytoplankton. The phytoplankton are consumed rapidly by the primary consumers, thus, minimizing their biomass at any particular point in time. However, phytoplankton reproduce quickly, thus they are able to support the rest of the ecosystem.

Pyramid ecosystem modeling can also be used to show energy flow through the trophic levels. Notice that these numbers are the same as those used in the energy flow compartment diagram in Figure 8. Pyramids of energy are always upright, and an ecosystem without sufficient primary productivity cannot be supported. All types of ecological pyramids are useful for characterizing ecosystem structure. However, in the study of energy flow through the ecosystem, pyramids of energy are the most consistent and representative models of ecosystem structure (Figure 10).

 Part A: on the left is a pyramid diagram of the number of individuals per 0.1 hectare in a summer grassland. There are 1,500,000 grass plants, 200,000 herbivorous insects, 90,000 predatory insects, and 1 bird. Part A: on the right is a pyramid diagram of organisms per 0.1 hectare in a temperate forest. There are 200 trees, 150,000 herbivorous insects, 120,000 predatory insects, and 5 birds. Part B: on the left is a pyramid diagram of dry biomass in grams per meter squared in the English Channel. The biomass is 4 phytoplankton and 21 zooplankton. Part B: on the right is a pyramid diagram of dry biomass in grams per meter squared in Silver Springs, Florida. The biomass of plants is 809. The biomass of primary consumers, including herbivorous insects and snails is 37. The biomass of secondary consumer fishes is 11, and the biomass of tertiary consumer fishes is 5. Primary, secondary and tertiary decomposers have a combined biomass of 5. Part C is a pyramid diagram of energy in kilocalories per meter squared per year. The energy of plants is 20,810. The energy of primary consumers, including insects and snails, is 3,368. The energy of primary consumer fishes is 383, and the energy of secondary consumer fishes is 21. The energy of decomposers, including fungi and bacteria, is 5,060.

Figure 10. Ecological pyramids depict the (a) biomass, (b) number of organisms, and (c) energy in each trophic level.

Practice Question

Pyramids depicting the number of organisms or biomass may be inverted, upright, or even diamond-shaped. Energy pyramids, however, are always upright. Why?

Pyramids of organisms may be inverted or diamond-shaped because a large organism, such as a tree, can sustain many smaller organisms. Likewise, a low biomass of organisms can sustain a larger biomass at the next trophic level because the organisms reproduce rapidly and thus supply continuous nourishment. Energy pyramids, however, must always be upright because of the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; thus, each trophic level must acquire energy from the trophic level below. The second law of thermodynamics states that, during the transfer of energy, some energy is always lost as heat; thus, less energy is available at each higher trophic level.

In Summary: Ecology of Ecosystems

Ecosystems exist on land, at sea, in the air, and underground. Different ways of modeling ecosystems are necessary to understand how environmental disturbances will affect ecosystem structure and dynamics. Conceptual models are useful to show the general relationships between organisms and the flow of materials or energy between them. Analytical models are used to describe linear food chains, and simulation models work best with holistic food webs.

Organisms in an ecosystem acquire energy in a variety of ways, which is transferred between trophic levels as the energy flows from the bottom to the top of the food web, with energy being lost at each transfer. The efficiency of these transfers is important for understanding the different behaviors and eating habits of warm-blooded versus cold-blooded animals. Modeling of ecosystem energy is best done with ecological pyramids of energy, although other ecological pyramids provide other vital information about ecosystem structure.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.