Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Biology 2e

46.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems

Biology 2e46.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. The Chemistry of Life
    1. 1 The Study of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 The Science of Biology
      3. 1.2 Themes and Concepts of Biology
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 2 The Chemical Foundation of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks
      3. 2.2 Water
      4. 2.3 Carbon
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 3 Biological Macromolecules
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 Synthesis of Biological Macromolecules
      3. 3.2 Carbohydrates
      4. 3.3 Lipids
      5. 3.4 Proteins
      6. 3.5 Nucleic Acids
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. The Cell
    1. 4 Cell Structure
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Studying Cells
      3. 4.2 Prokaryotic Cells
      4. 4.3 Eukaryotic Cells
      5. 4.4 The Endomembrane System and Proteins
      6. 4.5 The Cytoskeleton
      7. 4.6 Connections between Cells and Cellular Activities
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 5 Structure and Function of Plasma Membranes
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Components and Structure
      3. 5.2 Passive Transport
      4. 5.3 Active Transport
      5. 5.4 Bulk Transport
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 6 Metabolism
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Energy and Metabolism
      3. 6.2 Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy
      4. 6.3 The Laws of Thermodynamics
      5. 6.4 ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate
      6. 6.5 Enzymes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 7 Cellular Respiration
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Energy in Living Systems
      3. 7.2 Glycolysis
      4. 7.3 Oxidation of Pyruvate and the Citric Acid Cycle
      5. 7.4 Oxidative Phosphorylation
      6. 7.5 Metabolism without Oxygen
      7. 7.6 Connections of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Lipid Metabolic Pathways
      8. 7.7 Regulation of Cellular Respiration
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 8 Photosynthesis
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Overview of Photosynthesis
      3. 8.2 The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis
      4. 8.3 Using Light Energy to Make Organic Molecules
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 9 Cell Communication
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors
      3. 9.2 Propagation of the Signal
      4. 9.3 Response to the Signal
      5. 9.4 Signaling in Single-Celled Organisms
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 10 Cell Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Cell Division
      3. 10.2 The Cell Cycle
      4. 10.3 Control of the Cell Cycle
      5. 10.4 Cancer and the Cell Cycle
      6. 10.5 Prokaryotic Cell Division
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. Genetics
    1. 11 Meiosis and Sexual Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 The Process of Meiosis
      3. 11.2 Sexual Reproduction
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 12 Mendel's Experiments and Heredity
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Mendel’s Experiments and the Laws of Probability
      3. 12.2 Characteristics and Traits
      4. 12.3 Laws of Inheritance
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 13 Modern Understandings of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Chromosomal Theory and Genetic Linkage
      3. 13.2 Chromosomal Basis of Inherited Disorders
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 14 DNA Structure and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 Historical Basis of Modern Understanding
      3. 14.2 DNA Structure and Sequencing
      4. 14.3 Basics of DNA Replication
      5. 14.4 DNA Replication in Prokaryotes
      6. 14.5 DNA Replication in Eukaryotes
      7. 14.6 DNA Repair
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 15 Genes and Proteins
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Genetic Code
      3. 15.2 Prokaryotic Transcription
      4. 15.3 Eukaryotic Transcription
      5. 15.4 RNA Processing in Eukaryotes
      6. 15.5 Ribosomes and Protein Synthesis
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 16 Gene Expression
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Regulation of Gene Expression
      3. 16.2 Prokaryotic Gene Regulation
      4. 16.3 Eukaryotic Epigenetic Gene Regulation
      5. 16.4 Eukaryotic Transcription Gene Regulation
      6. 16.5 Eukaryotic Post-transcriptional Gene Regulation
      7. 16.6 Eukaryotic Translational and Post-translational Gene Regulation
      8. 16.7 Cancer and Gene Regulation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 17 Biotechnology and Genomics
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 Biotechnology
      3. 17.2 Mapping Genomes
      4. 17.3 Whole-Genome Sequencing
      5. 17.4 Applying Genomics
      6. 17.5 Genomics and Proteomics
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. Evolutionary Processes
    1. 18 Evolution and the Origin of Species
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 Understanding Evolution
      3. 18.2 Formation of New Species
      4. 18.3 Reconnection and Speciation Rates
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 19 The Evolution of Populations
      1. Introduction
      2. 19.1 Population Evolution
      3. 19.2 Population Genetics
      4. 19.3 Adaptive Evolution
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 20 Phylogenies and the History of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 20.1 Organizing Life on Earth
      3. 20.2 Determining Evolutionary Relationships
      4. 20.3 Perspectives on the Phylogenetic Tree
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. Biological Diversity
    1. 21 Viruses
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Viral Evolution, Morphology, and Classification
      3. 21.2 Virus Infections and Hosts
      4. 21.3 Prevention and Treatment of Viral Infections
      5. 21.4 Other Acellular Entities: Prions and Viroids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 22 Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      1. Introduction
      2. 22.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
      3. 22.2 Structure of Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      4. 22.3 Prokaryotic Metabolism
      5. 22.4 Bacterial Diseases in Humans
      6. 22.5 Beneficial Prokaryotes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 23 Protists
      1. Introduction
      2. 23.1 Eukaryotic Origins
      3. 23.2 Characteristics of Protists
      4. 23.3 Groups of Protists
      5. 23.4 Ecology of Protists
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 24 Fungi
      1. Introduction
      2. 24.1 Characteristics of Fungi
      3. 24.2 Classifications of Fungi
      4. 24.3 Ecology of Fungi
      5. 24.4 Fungal Parasites and Pathogens
      6. 24.5 Importance of Fungi in Human Life
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 25 Seedless Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 25.1 Early Plant Life
      3. 25.2 Green Algae: Precursors of Land Plants
      4. 25.3 Bryophytes
      5. 25.4 Seedless Vascular Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 26 Seed Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 26.1 Evolution of Seed Plants
      3. 26.2 Gymnosperms
      4. 26.3 Angiosperms
      5. 26.4 The Role of Seed Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 27 Introduction to Animal Diversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 27.1 Features of the Animal Kingdom
      3. 27.2 Features Used to Classify Animals
      4. 27.3 Animal Phylogeny
      5. 27.4 The Evolutionary History of the Animal Kingdom
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 28 Invertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 28.1 Phylum Porifera
      3. 28.2 Phylum Cnidaria
      4. 28.3 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Flatworms, Rotifers, and Nemerteans
      5. 28.4 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Molluscs and Annelids
      6. 28.5 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Nematodes and Tardigrades
      7. 28.6 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Arthropods
      8. 28.7 Superphylum Deuterostomia
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 29 Vertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 29.1 Chordates
      3. 29.2 Fishes
      4. 29.3 Amphibians
      5. 29.4 Reptiles
      6. 29.5 Birds
      7. 29.6 Mammals
      8. 29.7 The Evolution of Primates
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. Plant Structure and Function
    1. 30 Plant Form and Physiology
      1. Introduction
      2. 30.1 The Plant Body
      3. 30.2 Stems
      4. 30.3 Roots
      5. 30.4 Leaves
      6. 30.5 Transport of Water and Solutes in Plants
      7. 30.6 Plant Sensory Systems and Responses
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 31 Soil and Plant Nutrition
      1. Introduction
      2. 31.1 Nutritional Requirements of Plants
      3. 31.2 The Soil
      4. 31.3 Nutritional Adaptations of Plants
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 32 Plant Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 32.1 Reproductive Development and Structure
      3. 32.2 Pollination and Fertilization
      4. 32.3 Asexual Reproduction
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. Animal Structure and Function
    1. 33 The Animal Body: Basic Form and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 33.1 Animal Form and Function
      3. 33.2 Animal Primary Tissues
      4. 33.3 Homeostasis
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 34 Animal Nutrition and the Digestive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 34.1 Digestive Systems
      3. 34.2 Nutrition and Energy Production
      4. 34.3 Digestive System Processes
      5. 34.4 Digestive System Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 35 The Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 35.1 Neurons and Glial Cells
      3. 35.2 How Neurons Communicate
      4. 35.3 The Central Nervous System
      5. 35.4 The Peripheral Nervous System
      6. 35.5 Nervous System Disorders
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 36 Sensory Systems
      1. Introduction
      2. 36.1 Sensory Processes
      3. 36.2 Somatosensation
      4. 36.3 Taste and Smell
      5. 36.4 Hearing and Vestibular Sensation
      6. 36.5 Vision
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 37 The Endocrine System
      1. Introduction
      2. 37.1 Types of Hormones
      3. 37.2 How Hormones Work
      4. 37.3 Regulation of Body Processes
      5. 37.4 Regulation of Hormone Production
      6. 37.5 Endocrine Glands
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 38 The Musculoskeletal System
      1. Introduction
      2. 38.1 Types of Skeletal Systems
      3. 38.2 Bone
      4. 38.3 Joints and Skeletal Movement
      5. 38.4 Muscle Contraction and Locomotion
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 39 The Respiratory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 39.1 Systems of Gas Exchange
      3. 39.2 Gas Exchange across Respiratory Surfaces
      4. 39.3 Breathing
      5. 39.4 Transport of Gases in Human Bodily Fluids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 40 The Circulatory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 40.1 Overview of the Circulatory System
      3. 40.2 Components of the Blood
      4. 40.3 Mammalian Heart and Blood Vessels
      5. 40.4 Blood Flow and Blood Pressure Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 41 Osmotic Regulation and Excretion
      1. Introduction
      2. 41.1 Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance
      3. 41.2 The Kidneys and Osmoregulatory Organs
      4. 41.3 Excretion Systems
      5. 41.4 Nitrogenous Wastes
      6. 41.5 Hormonal Control of Osmoregulatory Functions
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. 42 The Immune System
      1. Introduction
      2. 42.1 Innate Immune Response
      3. 42.2 Adaptive Immune Response
      4. 42.3 Antibodies
      5. 42.4 Disruptions in the Immune System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. 43 Animal Reproduction and Development
      1. Introduction
      2. 43.1 Reproduction Methods
      3. 43.2 Fertilization
      4. 43.3 Human Reproductive Anatomy and Gametogenesis
      5. 43.4 Hormonal Control of Human Reproduction
      6. 43.5 Human Pregnancy and Birth
      7. 43.6 Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development
      8. 43.7 Organogenesis and Vertebrate Formation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. Ecology
    1. 44 Ecology and the Biosphere
      1. Introduction
      2. 44.1 The Scope of Ecology
      3. 44.2 Biogeography
      4. 44.3 Terrestrial Biomes
      5. 44.4 Aquatic Biomes
      6. 44.5 Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 45 Population and Community Ecology
      1. Introduction
      2. 45.1 Population Demography
      3. 45.2 Life Histories and Natural Selection
      4. 45.3 Environmental Limits to Population Growth
      5. 45.4 Population Dynamics and Regulation
      6. 45.5 Human Population Growth
      7. 45.6 Community Ecology
      8. 45.7 Behavioral Biology: Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Behavior
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 46 Ecosystems
      1. Introduction
      2. 46.1 Ecology of Ecosystems
      3. 46.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems
      4. 46.3 Biogeochemical Cycles
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 47 Conservation Biology and Biodiversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 47.1 The Biodiversity Crisis
      3. 47.2 The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
      4. 47.3 Threats to Biodiversity
      5. 47.4 Preserving Biodiversity
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
  10. A | The Periodic Table of Elements
  11. B | Geological Time
  12. C | Measurements and the Metric System
  13. Index
By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:
  • Describe how organisms acquire energy in a food web and in associated food chains
  • Explain how the efficiency of energy transfers between trophic levels affects ecosystem structure and dynamics
  • Discuss trophic levels and how ecological pyramids are used to model them

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.

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 46.9). 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.

 Photo shows shrimp, lobster, and white crabs crawling on a rocky ocean floor littered with mussels.
Figure 46.9 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.

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 square meter), 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 within the Silver Springs aquatic ecosystem as shown (Figure 46.8). In this ecosystem, the total energy accumulated by the primary producers (gross primary productivity) was shown to be 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 Springs example, 13,187 of the 20,810 kcal/m2/yr were used for respiration or were lost as heat, leaving 7,633 kcal/m2/yr of energy for use by the primary consumers.

Ecological Efficiency: The Transfer of Energy between Trophic Levels

As illustrated in (Figure 46.8), as energy flows from primary producers through the various trophic levels, the ecosystem loses large amounts of energy. 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 energy takes the form of metabolic heat, which is lost when the organisms consume other organisms. In the Silver Springs ecosystem example (Figure 46.8), 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:

TLTE =  production at present trophic level production at previous trophic level  × 100 TLTE =  production at present trophic level production at previous trophic level  × 100

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. In the Lake Ontario example shown in (Figure 46.6), only three energy transfers occurred between the primary producer, (green algae), and the apex consumer (Chinook salmon).

Ecologists have many different methods of measuring energy transfers within ecosystems. Measurement difficulty depends 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.

Other parameters are important in characterizing energy flow within an ecosystem. 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:

NPE =  net consumer productivity assimilation  × 100 NPE =  net consumer productivity assimilation  × 100

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 $0.01 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 nonmeat and nondairy foods so that less energy is wasted feeding animals for the meat industry.

Modeling Ecosystems Energy Flow: 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 46.10, 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 46.10), 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 46.8). 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 46.10).

Visual Connection

Section A, biomass, indicated by dry mass g slash m squared. On the left 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.  On the right is a pyramid diagram of dry biomass in grams per meter squared in the English Channel. The biomass is 4 phytoplankton and 21 zooplankto.  Section B, number of individuals per 0.1 hectare. 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  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. Section C, energy, k cal slash m squared slash year.   In Silver Springs Florida, 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 46.10 Ecological pyramids depict the (a) biomass, (b) number of organisms, and (c) energy in each trophic level.

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

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 the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which was described 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.

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 46.11), 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.

The illustration is a graph that plots total P C Bs in micrograms per gram of dry weight versus nitrogen 15 enrichment, shows that P C Bs 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 46.11 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 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.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Mar 28, 2018 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.