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Biology for AP® Courses

37.1 Ecology for Ecosystems

Biology for AP® Courses37.1 Ecology for Ecosystems
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  1. Preface
  2. Unit 1
    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. Review Questions
      7. Critical Thinking Questions
      8. Test Prep for AP® Courses
    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. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  3. Unit 2
    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 Cytoskeleton
      7. 4.6 Connections between Cells and Cellular Activities
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
      12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      13. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
      13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      14. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    5. 8 Photosynthesis
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Overview of Photosynthesis
      3. 8.2 The Light-Dependent Reaction of Photosynthesis
      4. 8.3 Using Light to Make Organic Molecules
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  4. Unit 3
    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. Review Questions
      7. Critical Thinking Questions
      8. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      9. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    3. 13 Modern Understandings of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Chromosomal Theory and Genetic Linkages
      3. 13.2 Chromosomal Basis of Inherited Disorders
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Review Questions
      7. Critical Thinking Questions
      8. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      9. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
      12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      13. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    6. 16 Gene Regulation
      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 Transcriptional 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. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
      13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      14. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  5. Unit 4
    1. 18 Evolution and Origin of Species
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 Understanding Evolution
      3. 18.2 Formation of New Species
      4. 18.3 Reconnection and Rates of Speciation
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge 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. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  6. Unit 5
    1. 21 Viruses
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Viral Evolution, Morphology, and Classification
      3. 21.2 Virus Infection 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. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    2. 22 Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      1. Introduction
      2. 22.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
      3. 22.2 Structure of Prokaryotes
      4. 22.3 Prokaryotic Metabolism
      5. 22.4 Bacterial Diseases in Humans
      6. 22.5 Beneficial Prokaryotes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  7. Unit 6
    1. 23 Plant Form and Physiology
      1. Introduction
      2. 23.1 The Plant Body
      3. 23.2 Stems
      4. 23.3 Roots
      5. 23.4 Leaves
      6. 23.5 Transport of Water and Solutes in Plants
      7. 23.6 Plant Sensory Systems and Responses
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
      12. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      13. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  8. Unit 7
    1. 24 The Animal Body: Basic Form and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 24.1 Animal Form and Function
      3. 24.2 Animal Primary Tissues
      4. 24.3 Homeostasis
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
    2. 25 Animal Nutrition and the Digestive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 25.1 Digestive Systems
      3. 25.2 Nutrition and Energy Production
      4. 25.3 Digestive System Processes
      5. 25.4 Digestive System Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    3. 26 The Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 26.1 Neurons and Glial Cells
      3. 26.2 How Neurons Communicate
      4. 26.3 The Central Nervous System
      5. 26.4 The Peripheral Nervous System
      6. 26.5 Nervous System Disorders
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    4. 27 Sensory Systems
      1. Introduction
      2. 27.1 Sensory Processes
      3. 27.2 Somatosensation
      4. 27.3 Taste and Smell
      5. 27.4 Hearing and Vestibular Sensation
      6. 27.5 Vision
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    5. 28 The Endocrine System
      1. Introduction
      2. 28.1 Types of Hormones
      3. 28.2 How Hormones Work
      4. 28.3 Regulation of Body Processes
      5. 28.4 Regulation of Hormone Production
      6. 28.5 Endocrine Glands
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    6. 29 The Musculoskeletal System
      1. Introduction
      2. 29.1 Types of Skeletal Systems
      3. 29.2 Bone
      4. 29.3 Joints and Skeletal Movement
      5. 29.4 Muscle Contraction and Locomotion
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    7. 30 The Respiratory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 30.1 Systems of Gas Exchange
      3. 30.2 Gas Exchange across Respiratory Surfaces
      4. 30.3 Breathing
      5. 30.4 Transport of Gases in Human Bodily Fluids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    8. 31 The Circulatory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 31.1 Overview of the Circulatory System
      3. 31.2 Components of the Blood
      4. 31.3 Mammalian Heart and Blood Vessels
      5. 31.4 Blood Flow and Blood Pressure Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    9. 32 Osmotic Regulation and Excretion
      1. Introduction
      2. 32.1 Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance
      3. 32.2 The Kidneys and Osmoregulatory Organs
      4. 32.3 Excretion Systems
      5. 32.4 Nitrogenous Wastes
      6. 32.5 Hormonal Control of Osmoregulatory Functions
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
    10. 33 The Immune System
      1. Introduction
      2. 33.1 Innate Immune Response
      3. 33.2 Adaptive Immune Response
      4. 33.3 Antibodies
      5. 33.4 Disruptions in the Immune System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      11. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    11. 34 Animal Reproduction and Development
      1. Introduction
      2. 34.1 Reproduction Methods
      3. 34.2 Fertilization
      4. 34.3 Human Reproductive Anatomy and Gametogenesis
      5. 34.4 Hormonal Control of Human Reproduction
      6. 34.5 Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development
      7. 34.6 Organogenesis and Vertebrate Formation
      8. 34.7 Human Pregnancy and Birth
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
      13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      14. Science Practice Challenge Questions
  9. Unit 8
    1. 35 Ecology and the Biosphere
      1. Introduction
      2. 35.1 The Scope of Ecology
      3. 35.2 Biogeography
      4. 35.3 Terrestrial Biomes
      5. 35.4 Aquatic Biomes
      6. 35.5 Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
      11. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      12. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    2. 36 Population and Community Ecology
      1. Introduction
      2. 36.1 Population Demography
      3. 36.2 Life Histories and Natural Selection
      4. 36.3 Environmental Limits to Population Growth
      5. 36.4 Population Dynamics and Regulation
      6. 36.5 Human Population Growth
      7. 36.6 Community Ecology
      8. 36.7 Behavioral Biology: Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Behavior
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
      13. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      14. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    3. 37 Ecosystems
      1. Introduction
      2. 37.1 Ecology for Ecosystems
      3. 37.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems
      4. 37.3 Biogeochemical Cycles
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
      9. Test Prep for AP® Courses
      10. Science Practice Challenge Questions
    4. 38 Conservation Biology and Biodiversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 38.1 The Biodiversity Crisis
      3. 38.2 The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
      4. 38.3 Threats to Biodiversity
      5. 38.4 Preserving Biodiversity
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
      10. Test Prep for AP® Courses
  10. A | The Periodic Table of Elements
  11. B | Geological Time
  12. C | Measurements and the Metric System
  13. Index

In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • What are the basic types of ecosystems on Earth?
  • What are methods that ecologists use to study ecosystem structure and dynamics?
  • What are the different methods of ecosystem modeling?
  • What is the difference between a food chain and a food web, and what is the importance of each?

Connection for AP® Courses

Life in an ecosystem is often about the competition for limited resources, a characteristic of the theory of natural selection. Competition in communities (all living things within a specific habitat) 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.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts outlined in Big Idea 2 and Big Idea 4 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework. The AP® Learning Objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® exam questions. A learning objective merges required content with one or more of the seven science practices.

Big Idea 2 Biological systems utilize free energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis.
Enduring Understanding 2.A Growth, reproduction and maintenance of living systems require free energy and matter.
Essential Knowledge 2.A.1 All living systems require constant input of free energy.
Science Practice 6.4 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.
Learning Objective 2.3 The student is able to predict how changes in free energy availability affect organisms, populations, and ecosystems.
Enduring Understanding 2.D Growth and dynamic homeostasis of a biological system are influenced by changes in the system’s environment.
Essential Knowledge 2.D.1 All biological systems from cells and organisms to populations, communities and ecosystems are affected by complex biotic and abiotic interactions involving exchange of matter and free energy.
Science Practice 5.1 The student can analyze data to identify patterns or relationships.
Learning Objective 2.24 The student is able to analyze data to identify possible patterns and relationships between a biotic or abiotic factor and a biological system, including an ecosystem.
Big Idea 4 Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties.
Enduring Understanding 4.A Interactions within biological systems lead to complex properties.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.6 Interactions among living systems and with their environment result in the movement of matter and energy.
Science Practice 2.2 The student can apply mathematical routines to quantities that describe natural phenomena.
Learning Objective 4.14 The student is able to apply mathematical routines to quantities that describe interactions among living systems and their environment, which result in the movement of matter and energy.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.6 Interactions among living systems and with their environment result in the movement of matter and energy.
Science Practice 1.4 The student can use representations and models to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively and quantitatively.
Learning Objective 4.15 The student is able to use visual representations to analyze situations or solve problems qualitatively to illustrate how interactions among living systems and with their environment result in the movement of matter and energy.
Essential Knowledge 4.A.6 Interactions among living systems and with their environment result in the movement of matter and energy.
Science Practice 6.4 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.
Learning Objective 4.16 The student is able to predict the effects of a change of matter or energy availability on communities and ecosystems.

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 37.2).

Left photo shows a rocky tide pool with seaweed and snails. Right photo shows the Amazon Rainforest.
Figure 37.2 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)

There are three broad categories of ecosystems based on their general environment: freshwater, ocean water, and terrestrial. Within these broad categories are individual ecosystem types based on the organisms present and the type of environmental habitat.

Ocean ecosystems are the most common, comprising 75 percent of the Earth's surface and consisting of three basic types: shallow ocean, deep ocean water, and deep ocean surfaces (the low depth areas of the deep oceans). The shallow ocean ecosystems include extremely biodiverse coral reef ecosystems, and the deep ocean surface is known for its large numbers of plankton and krill (small crustaceans) that support it. These two environments are especially important to aerobic respirators worldwide as the phytoplankton perform 40 percent of all photosynthesis on Earth. Although not as diverse as the other two, deep ocean ecosystems contain a wide variety of marine organisms. Such ecosystems exist even at the bottom of the ocean where light is unable to penetrate through the water.

Freshwater ecosystems are the rarest, occurring on only 1.8 percent of the Earth's surface. Lakes, rivers, streams, and springs comprise these systems; they are quite diverse, and they support a variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, phytoplankton, fungi, and bacteria.

Terrestrial ecosystems, also known for their diversity, are grouped into large categories called biomes, such as tropical rain forests, savannas, deserts, coniferous forests, deciduous forests, and tundra. Grouping these ecosystems into just a few biome categories obscures the great diversity of the individual ecosystems within them. For example, there is great variation in desert vegetation: the saguaro cacti and other plant life in the Sonoran Desert, in the United States, are relatively abundant compared to the desolate rocky desert of Boa Vista, an island off the coast of Western Africa (Figure 37.3).

 Photo (a) shows saguaro cacti that look like telephone poles with arms extended from them. Photo (b) shows a barren plain of red soil littered with rocks.
Figure 37.3 Desert ecosystems, like all ecosystems, can vary greatly. The desert in (a) Saguaro National Park, Arizona, has abundant plant life, while the rocky desert of (b) Boa Vista island, Cape Verde, Africa, is devoid of plant life. (credit a: modification of work by Jay Galvin; credit b: modification of work by Ingo Wölbern)

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.

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.

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 37.4, the Chinook salmon is the apex consumer at the top of this food chain.

 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 37.4 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.

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 37.5). 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 37.5 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 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 37.6).

The bottom level of the illustration shows primary producers, which include diatoms, green algae, blue-green algae, flagellates, and rotifers. The next level up includes the primary consumers that eat primary producers. These include calanoids, water fleas, 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 37.6 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.

Link to Learning

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.

What happens to a food web in the absence of primary producers such as plants? Why?
  1. A food web will be produced, but position of some organisms will vary in the food web as their diet will vary.
  2. Some primary consumers will perform the function of primary producers in the food web or chain.
  3. A food web is unable to be produced as there is no basal energy source for consumers to obtain energy from.
  4. A food web is unable to be produced because very less amount of basal energy source is available for consumers to obtain energy from.

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 37.6) 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.

Evolution Connection

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.1

The three-spined 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 (Figure 37.7). 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.

 Photo shows two small fish swimming above a rocky bottom.
Figure 37.7 The three-spined stickleback evolved from a saltwater fish to freshwater fish. (credit: Barrett Paul, USFWS)
In the lake microcosms, why were algal blooms possible in the presence of one, but not two stickleback species?
  1. Because there were larger molecules of dissolved organic content in the presence of two species versus one species.
  2. Because two stickleback species consume all of the nutrients required by the algae to bloom.
  3. Because one species had more dissolved organic matter available in their habitat than the other species.
  4. Because more algae is consumed in the presence of two stickleback species versus only one species.

Research into Ecosystem Dynamics: Ecosystem Experimentation and Modeling

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.

Conceptual models are also used to show the flow of energy through particular ecosystems. Figure 37.8 is based on Howard T. Odum’s classical study of the Silver Springs, Florida, holistic ecosystem in the mid-twentieth century.2 This study shows the energy content and transfer between various ecosystem compartments.

Visual Connection

 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 37.8 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.
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 / m 2 / yr )?
  1. Total heat and respiration refers to the energy used by all trophic levels and the energy provided by the primary producers is more than the energy provided by primary consumers to these levels.
  2. Gross productivity of primary producers is the same as the value for total heat and respiration because of the high efficiency of conversion of solar energy to energy used by all trophic levels by primary producers.
  3. The value for gross productivity of primary producers and total heat and respiration is same as primary producers provide energy to primary consumers and secondary consumers only.
  4. Total heat and respiration refers to energy used by all trophic levels and the only accessible energy to these levels is provided by primary producers.

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.

Link to Learning

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

Why doesn’t an increased number of prey species in marine ecosystems lead to maximal feeding of predators?
  1. Because there may not be enough predators that can eat each of the prey species.
  2. Non-maximal feeding of predators occurs due to inadequate dispersal of prey species in the marine ecosystems.
  3. Non maximal feeding of predators may occur due to the presence of new prey species with effective defenses that are inherited.
  4. Because of natural selection, non-maximal feeding of predators occurs.

Science Practice Connection for AP® Courses

Activity

Investigate a food web in an aquatic or terrestrial ecosystem of your choice, for example, coral reef. Create a diagram of the food web and describe the role of each organism in the web. Then arbitrarily remove one organism from the food web and predict how this will affect the ecosystem with respect to the movement of matter and energy. Put that organism back in your food web and remove a different organism. Predict how the ecosystem will be affected. Was your prediction the same as it was for the first organism?

Think About It

What are the differences and similarities between food chains and food webs? How are both used to describe an ecosystem with respect to the movement of matter and energy through the ecosystem?

Teacher Support

  • Activity: The activity is an application of AP® Learning Objectives 2.3, 4.15 and 4.16 and Science Practices 6.4 because students are using a visual representation of a food web to illustrate qualitatively the interactions among living systems in the ecosystems and with their environment and then predicting how a change in the food web could affect the flow of matter and energy in the ecosystem.
  • Think About It: Food chains are linear, they only shows one food source per organism while food webs show the relationship between multiple species. They both show the movement of energy and matter between trophic levels. The Think About It question is an application of AP® Learning Objective 4.15 and Science Practice 1.4 because based on food chains and food webs—which are visual representations of the relationships among organisms in an ecosystem—students are describing the pathway(s) of matter and energy through the ecosystem.

Footnotes

  • 1 Nature (Vol. 458, April 1, 2009)
  • 2 Howard T. Odum, “Trophic Structure and Productivity of Silver Springs, Florida,” Ecological Monographs 27, no. 1 (1957): 47–112.
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