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Energy flow in Ecosystems:

Living organisms use energy in two forms; radiant and fixed energy. Radiant energy is in the
form of electromagnetic waves, such as light. Fixed energy is potential chemical energy
bound in various organic substances which can be broken down in order to release their
energy content.
Organisms that can fix radiant energy utilizing inorganic substances to produce organic
molecules are called autotrophs. Organisms that are unable to obtain energy from abiotic
source and depend on energy-rich organic molecules synthesized by autotrophs are called
heterotrophs. Those which obtain energy from living organisms are called consumers and
those which obtain energy from dead organisms are called decomposers.

As light energy falls on the green surfaces of plants, a part of it is converted into chemical
energy which is stored in various organic products in the plants. Then the plants are
consumed by herbivores, as food, and the chemical energy accumulated in plant products is
converted into kinetic energy, loss of energy will occur through its conversion into heat.
When herbivores are consumed by carnivores of the first order (secondary consumers) further
energy loss will occur. Similarly, when primary carnivores are consumed by top carnivores,
again energy will be loss.
Food Chain:

In the ecosystem, only green plants are able to trap in solar energy and convert it into
chemical energy. The chemical energy is locked up in the various organic compounds, such
as carbohydrates, fats and proteins, present in the green plants. Since, virtually, all other
living organisms are dependent upon green plants for their energy, the efficiency of plants,
within any given area, in capturing solar energy sets the upper limit to long-term energy flow
and biological activity in the community.

The food manufactured by the green plants is utilized by themselves and also by herbivores.
Animals feed continuously. Herbivores fall prey to some carnivorous animals. Allowing for
one form of life to support the other . Thus, food from one trophic level is able reach to the
other trophic level and in this way a chain is established. This is known as food chain.

A food chain may be defined as the transfer of energy and nutrients through a succession of
organisms, by the repeated process of eating and being eaten. In the food chain, the initial
link is a green plant, or producer, which produces chemical energy, through the conversion of
sunlight, that is available to consumers.
For example, marsh grass is consumed by grasshopper, the grasshopper is consumed by a
bird and that bird is consumed by hawk.
Thus, a food chain is formed which can be written as follows:

Marsh grass → grasshopper → bird → hawk

The food chain, in any ecosystem, is a continuous cycle in which green plants are eaten by
herbivores, herbivores are eaten by carnivores and carnivores are eaten by top carnivores.
Man forms the terrestrial links of many food chains.

Food web:

Many food chains exist in an ecosystem, but these food chains are not independent. In an
ecosystem, one organism does not depend wholly upon another. The resources are shared,
especially at the beginning of the chain. The marsh plants are eaten by variety of insects,
birds, mammals and fishes and some of the animals are eaten by several predators.

Similarly, in the food chain grass → mouse → snakes → owls (sometimes mice are not eaten
by snakes but directly by owls).
This type of interrelationship links the individuals of the whole community. In this way, the
food chains become interlinked. A complex of interrelated food chains makes up a food web.
Food web maintains the stability of the ecosystem. The greater the number of alternative
pathways, the more stable is the community of living things.

Illustration a food web in ecosystem.

Trophic level:
The producers and consumers in ecosystem can be arranged into several feeding groups, each
known as trophic level (feeding level). In any ecosystem, producers represent the first trophic
level, herbivores present the second trophic level, primary carnivores represent the third
trophic level and top carnivores represent the last level.
Energy transfer between trophic levels typically follows what is referred to as the ten percent

That is, from each trophic level to the next, 90% of the starting energy is unavailable tto the
next trophic level because that energy is used for processes such as movement, growth,
respiration, and reproduction. Some is lost through heat loss and waste. Thus, the remaining
ten percent of the energy can be transferred to the next trophic level.
As we move up trophic levels, less and less energy is available and fewer organisms can be

Ecological pyramid:
The trophic structure of an ecosystem can be indicated by means of ecological pyramid. At
each step in the food chain a considerable fraction of the potential energy is lost as heat. As a
result, organisms in each trophic level pass on lesser energy to the next trophic level than
they actually receive. This limits the number of steps in any food chain to 4 or 5. Longer the
food chain the lesser energy is available for final members. Because of this tapering off of
available energy in the food chain a pyramid is formed that is known as ecological pyramid.

The higher the steps in the ecological pyramid the lower will be the number of individuals
and the larger their size.
The idea of ecological pyramids was advanced by C.E. Elton (1927). There are different
types of ecological pyramids. In each ecological pyramid, producer level forms the base and
successive levels make up the apex. Three types of pyramidal relations may be found among
the organisms at different levels in the ecosystem.

These are as follows:

1. Pyramid of numbers,
2. Pyramid of biomass (biomass is the weight of living organisms), and
3. Pyramid of energy.

1. Pyramid of numbers:
It depicts the numbers of individuals in producers and in different orders of consumers in an
ecosystem. The base of pyramid is represented by producers which are the most abundant. In
the successive levels of consumers, the number of organisms goes on decreasing rapidly until
there are a few carnivores.
The pyramid of numbers of an ecosystem indicates that the producers are ingested in large
numbers by smaller numbers of primary consumers. These primary consumers are eaten by
relatively smaller number of secondary consumers and these secondary consumers, in turn,
are consumed by only a few tertiary consumers.

This type of pyramid is best presented by taking an example of a Lake Ecosystem. In this
type of pyramid the base trophic level is occupied by producer elements—algae, diatoms and
other hydrophytes, which are most abundant. At the second trophic level come the herbivores
or zooplanktons which are lesser in number than producers.

The third trophic level is occupied by carnivores which are still smaller in number than the
herbivores and the top is occupied by a few top carnivores. Thus, in the ecological pyramid

of numbers there is a relative reduction in number of organisms and an increase in the size of
body from base to apex of the pyramid. In parasitic food chain starting from tree, the pyramid
of numbers will be inverted.

2. Pyramid of biomass of organisms:

The living weight or biomass of the members of the food chain present at any one time forms
the pyramid of biomass of organisms. This indicates, by weight or other means of measuring
materials, the total bulk of organisms or fixed energy present at one time. Pyramid of biomass
indicates the decrease of biomass in each tropic level from base to apex, e.g., total biomass of
producers is more than the total biomass of the herbivores.

Likewise, the total biomass of secondary consumers will be lesser than that of herbivores and
so on. Since some energy and material are lost in each successive link, the total mass
supported at each level is limited by the rate at which the energy is being stored below. This
usually gives sloping pyramid for most of the communities in terrestrial and shallow water
ecosystems. The pyramid of biomass in a pond ecosystem will be inverted.

3. Pyramid of energy:

This depicts not only the amount of total energy utilized by the organisms at each trophic
level of food chain but more importantly, the actual role of various organisms in the transfer
of energy. At the producer level the total energy will be much greater than the energy at the
successive higher trophic level.

Some producer organisms may have small biomass but the total energy they assimilate and
pass on to consumers may be greater than that of organisms with much larger biomass.
Higher trophic levels are more efficient in energy utilization but much heat is lost in energy
transfer. Energy loss by respiration also progressively increases from lower to higher trophic

In the energy flow process, two things become obvious. Firstly. there is one way along which
energy moves i.e. unidirectional flow of energy. Energy comes in the ecosystem from outside
source i.e. sun. The energy captured by autotrophs does not go back to the sun, the energy
that passes from autotrophs to herbivores does not revert back and as it moves progressively
through the various trophic levels, it is no longer available to the previous levels.

Thus due to unidirectional flow of energy, the system would collapse if the supply from
primary source, the sun is cut off. Secondly, there occurs a progressive decrease in energy
level at each trophic level which is accounted largely by the energy dissipated as heat in
metabolic activities.