8-3-3. Energy Flow through Ecosystems
All living things require energy in one form or another. Energy is required by most complex metabolic pathways (often in the form of adenosine triphosphate, ATP), especially those responsible for building large molecules from smaller compounds, and life itself is an energy-driven process. Living organisms would not be able to assemble macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and complex carbohydrates) from their monomeric subunits without a constant energy input.
It is important to understand how organisms acquire energy and how that energy is passed from one organism to another through food webs and their constituent food chains. Food webs illustrate how energy flows directionally through ecosystems, including how efficiently organisms acquire it, use it, and how much remains for use by other organisms of the food web.
How Organisms Acquire Energy in a Food Web
Energy is acquired by living things in three ways: photosynthesis, chemosynthesis, and the consumption and digestion of other living or previously living organisms by heterotrophs.
Photosynthetic and chemosynthetic organisms are both grouped into a category known as autotrophs: organisms capable of synthesizing their own food (more specifically, capable of using inorganic carbon as a carbon source). Photosynthetic autotrophs (photoautotrophs) use sunlight as an energy source, whereas chemosynthetic autotrophs (chemoautotrophs) use inorganic molecules as an energy source. Autotrophs are critical for all ecosystems. Without these organisms, energy would not be available to other living organisms and life itself would not be possible.
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.
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.
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
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.
Ecological Efficiency: The Transfer of Energy between Trophic Levels
As illustrated in Section 8-3-2 Figure 7, large amounts of energy are lost from the ecosystem from one trophic level to the next level as energy flows from the primary producers through the various trophic levels of consumers and decomposers. The main reason for this loss is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that whenever energy is converted from one form to another, there is a tendency toward disorder (entropy) in the system. In biologic systems, this means a great deal of energy is lost as metabolic heat when the organisms from one trophic level consume the next level. In the Silver Springs ecosystem example (Section 8-3-2 Figure 7), 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
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 Section 8-3-2 Figure 5, 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. Some transfers are easier or more difficult to measure depending on the complexity of the ecosystem and how much access scientists have to observe the ecosystem. In other words, some ecosystems are more difficult to study than others, and sometimes the quantification of energy transfers has to be estimated.
Another main parameter that is important in characterizing energy flow within an ecosystem is the net production efficiency.
NPE = (net consumer productivity / assimilation) x 100
Thus, NPE measures how efficiently each trophic level uses and incorporates the energy from its food into biomass to fuel the next trophic level. In general, cold-blooded animals (ectotherms), such as invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, use less of the energy they obtain for respiration and heat than warm-blooded animals (endotherms), such as birds and mammals. The extra heat generated in endotherms, although an advantage in terms of the activity of these organisms in colder environments, is a major disadvantage in terms of NPE. Therefore, many endotherms have to eat more often than ectotherms to get the energy they need for survival. In general, NPE for ectotherms is an order of magnitude (10x) higher than for endotherms. For example, the NPE for a caterpillar eating leaves has been measured at 18 percent, whereas the NPE for a squirrel eating acorns may be as low as 1.6 percent.
The inefficiency of energy use by warm-blooded animals has broad implications for the world's food supply. It is widely accepted that the meat industry uses large amounts of crops to feed livestock, and because the NPE is low, much of the energy from animal feed is lost. For example, it costs about 1¢ to produce 1000 dietary calories (kcal) of corn or soybeans, but approximately $0.19 to produce a similar number of calories growing cattle for beef consumption. The same energy content of milk from cattle is also costly, at approximately $0.16 per 1000 kcal. Much of this difference is due to the low NPE of cattle. Thus, there has been a growing movement worldwide to promote the consumption of non-meat and non-dairy foods so that less energy is wasted feeding animals for the meat industry.
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.
Pyramids of numbers can be either upright or inverted, depending on the ecosystem. As shown in Figure 2, 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 2), 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 Section 8-3-2 Figure 7. 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 2).
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.
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 3), PCB concentrations increased from the ecosystem’s primary producers (phytoplankton) through the different trophic levels of fish species. The apex consumer (walleye) has more than four times the amount of PCBs compared to phytoplankton. Also, based on results from other studies, birds that eat these fish may have PCB levels at least one order of magnitude higher than those found in the lake fish.
Other concerns have been raised by the accumulation of heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium, in certain types of seafood. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that pregnant women and young children should not consume any swordfish, shark, king mackerel, or tilefish because of their high mercury content. These individuals are advised to eat fish low in mercury: salmon, tilapia, shrimp, pollock, and catfish. Biomagnification is a good example of how ecosystem dynamics can affect our everyday lives, even influencing the food we eat.
Organisms in an ecosystem acquire energy in a variety of ways, which is transferred between trophic levels as the energy flows from the bottom to the top of the food web, with energy being lost at each transfer. The efficiency of these transfers is important for understanding the different behaviors and eating habits of warm-blooded versus cold-blooded animals. Modeling of ecosystem energy is best done with ecological pyramids of energy, although other ecological pyramids provide other vital information about ecosystem structure.
Figure 2. Pyramids depicting the number of organisms or biomass may be inverted, upright, or even diamond-shaped. Energy pyramids, however, are always upright. Why?
Figure 2. Pyramids of organisms may be inverted or diamond-shaped because a large organism, such as a tree, can sustain many smaller organisms. Likewise, a low biomass of organisms can sustain a larger biomass at the next trophic level because the organisms reproduce rapidly and thus supply continuous nourishment. Energy pyramids, however, must always be upright because of the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; thus, each trophic level must acquire energy from the trophic level below. The second law of thermodynamics states that, during the transfer of energy, some energy is always lost as heat; thus, less energy is available at each higher trophic level.
The weight of living organisms in an ecosystem at a particular point in time is called:
Which term describes the process whereby toxic substances increase along trophic levels of an ecosystem?
Organisms that can make their own food using inorganic molecules are called:
In the English Channel ecosystem, the number of primary producers is smaller than the number of primary consumers because________.
What law of chemistry determines how much energy can be transferred when it is converted from one form to another?
Compare the three types of ecological pyramids and how well they describe ecosystem structure. Identify which ones can be inverted and give an example of an inverted pyramid for each.
Pyramids of numbers display the number of individual organisms on each trophic level. These pyramids can be either upright or inverted, depending on the number of the organisms. Pyramids of biomass display the weight of organisms at each level. Inverted pyramids of biomass can occur when the primary producer has a high turnover rate. Pyramids of energy are usually upright and are the best representation of energy flow and ecosystem structure.
How does the amount of food a warm blooded-animal (endotherm) eats relate to its net production efficiency (NPE)?
NPE measures the rate at which one trophic level can use and make biomass from what it attained in the previous level, taking into account respiration, defecation, and heat loss. Endotherms have high metabolism and generate a lot of body heat. Although this gives them advantages in their activity level in colder temperatures, these organisms are 10 times less efficient at harnessing the energy from the food they eat compared with cold-blooded animals, and thus have to eat more and more often.
gross primary productivity
net consumer productivity
net primary productivity
net production efficiency (NPE)
trophic level transfer efficiency (TLTE)