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Ecosystems maintain themselves by cycling energy and nutrients obtained from

external sources. At the first trophic level, primary producers (plants, algae, and some
bacteria) use solar energy to produce organic plant material through photosynthesis.
Herbivoresanimals that feed solely on plantsmake up the second trophic level.
Predators that eat herbivores comprise the third trophic level; if larger predators are
present, they represent still higher trophic levels. Organisms that feed at several trophic
levels (for example, grizzly bears that eat berries and salmon) are classified at the
highest of the trophic levels at which they feed. Decomposers, which include bacteria,
fungi, molds, worms, and insects, break down wastes and dead organisms and return
nutrients to the soil.
On average about 10 percent of net energy production at one trophic level is passed on
to the next level. Processes that reduce the energy transferred between trophic levels
include respiration, growth and reproduction, defecation, and nonpredatory death
(organisms that die but are not eaten by consumers). The nutritional quality of material
that is consumed also influences how efficiently energy is transferred, because
consumers can convert high-quality food sources into new living tissue more efficiently
than low-quality food sources.
The low rate of energy transfer between trophic levels makes decomposers generally
more important than producers in terms of energy flow. Decomposers process large
amounts of organic material and return nutrients to the ecosystem in inorganic form,
which are then taken up again by primary producers. Energy is not recycled during
decomposition, but rather is released, mostly as heat (this is what makes compost piles
and fresh garden mulch warm). Figure 6 shows the flow of energy (dark arrows) and
nutrients (light arrows) through ecosystems.

How Humans Have Disrupted The Nitrogen


Cycle
Researchers have found a new proxy to measure the impact of fossil fuel
emissions on the global nitrogen cycle. The scientists use nitrogen
isotopes found in a Greenland ice core to link nitrates to the rise in nitric
oxides since the industrial period. The research also shows the greatest
change in the isotope ratios occurred between 1950 and 1980, following a
rapid increase in fossil fuel burning. Results are published in Science.

Food Webs
Food webs are built around the flow of energy between organisms, known as energy
transfer, which begins with plant life. Plants absorb energy in two ways. From the Sun,
they receive electromagnetic energy in the form of visible light and invisible infrared
waves, which they convert to chemical energy through a process known as
photosynthesis. In addition, plants take in nutrients from the soil, which contain energy
in the forms of various chemical compounds. These compounds may be organic, which
typically means that they came from living things, though, in fact, the term organic refers
strictly to characteristic carbon-based chemical structures. Plants also receive inorganic
compounds from minerals in the soil. (See Minerals. For more about the role of carbon
in inorganic compounds, see Carbon Cycle.)
Contained in these minerals are six chemical elements essential to the sustenance of
life on planet Earth: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. These
are the elements involved in biogeochemical cycles, through which they continually are
circulated between the living and nonliving worldsthat is, between organisms, on the
one hand, and the inorganic realms of rocks, minerals, water, and air, on the other (see
Biogeochemical Cycles).