The Habitable PlanetHabitable Planet home page

Unit 4: Ecosystems // Section 3: Energy Flow Through Ecosystems


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. Herbivores—animals that feed solely on plants—make 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.

Energy and nutrient transfer through ecosystems

Figure 6. Energy and nutrient transfer through ecosystems
See larger image

Source: Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Nature Connections.

An ecosystem's gross primary productivity (GPP) is the total amount of organic matter that it produces through photosynthesis. Net primary productivity (NPP) describes the amount of energy that remains available for plant growth after subtracting the fraction that plants use for respiration. Productivity in land ecosystems generally rises with temperature up to about 30°C, after which it declines, and is positively correlated with moisture. On land primary productivity thus is highest in warm, wet zones in the tropics where tropical forest biomes are located. In contrast, desert scrub ecosystems have the lowest productivity because their climates are extremely hot and dry (Fig. 7).

Terrestrial net primary productivity

Figure 7. Terrestrial net primary productivity
See larger image

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In the oceans, light and nutrients are important controlling factors for productivity. As noted in Unit 3, "Oceans," light penetrates only into the uppermost level of the oceans, so photosynthesis occurs in surface and near-surface waters. Marine primary productivity is high near coastlines and other areas where upwelling brings nutrients to the surface, promoting plankton blooms. Runoff from land is also a source of nutrients in estuaries and along the continental shelves. Among aquatic ecosystems, algal beds and coral reefs have the highest net primary production, while the lowest rates occur in the open due to a lack of nutrients in the illuminated surface layers (Fig. 8).

Ocean net primary productivity, 1997-2002

Figure 8. Ocean net primary productivity, 1997-2002
See larger image

Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

How many trophic levels can an ecosystem support? The answer depends on several factors, including the amount of energy entering the ecosystem, energy loss between trophic levels, and the form, structure, and physiology of organisms at each level. At higher trophic levels, predators generally are physically larger and are able to utilize a fraction of the energy that was produced at the level beneath them, so they have to forage over increasingly large areas to meet their caloric needs.

Because of these energy losses, most terrestrial ecosystems have no more than five trophic levels, and marine ecosystems generally have no more than seven. This difference between terrestrial and marine ecosystems is likely due to differences in the fundamental characteristics of land and marine primary organisms. In marine ecosystems, microscopic phytoplankton carry out most of the photosynthesis that occurs, while plants do most of this work on land. Phytoplankton are small organisms with extremely simple structures, so most of their primary production is consumed and used for energy by grazing organisms that feed on them. In contrast, a large fraction of the biomass that land plants produce, such as roots, trunks, and branches, cannot be used by herbivores for food, so proportionately less of the energy fixed through primary production travels up the food chain.

Growth rates may also be a factor. Phytoplankton are extremely small but grow very rapidly, so they support large populations of herbivores even though there may be fewer algae than herbivores at any given moment. In contrast, land plants may take years to reach maturity, so an average carbon atom spends a longer residence time at the primary producer level on land than it does in a marine ecosystem. In addition, locomotion costs are generally higher for terrestrial organisms compared to those in aquatic environments.

The simplest way to describe the flux of energy through ecosystems is as a food chain in which energy passes from one trophic level to the next, without factoring in more complex relationships between individual species. Some very simple ecosystems may consist of a food chain with only a few trophic levels. For example, the ecosystem of the remote wind-swept Taylor Valley in Antarctica consists mainly of bacteria and algae that are eaten by nematode worms (footnote 2). More commonly, however, producers and consumers are connected in intricate food webs with some consumers feeding at several trophic levels (Fig. 9).

Lake Michigan food web

Figure 9. Lake Michigan food web
See larger image

Source: Courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

An important consequence of the loss of energy between trophic levels is that contaminants collect in animal tissues—a process called bioaccumulation. As contaminants bioaccumulate up the food web, organisms at higher trophic levels can be threatened even if the pollutant is introduced to the environment in very small quantities.

The insecticide DDT, which was widely used in the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s, is a famous case of bioaccumulation. DDT built up in eagles and other raptors to levels high enough to affect their reproduction, causing the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke in their nests. Fortunately, populations have rebounded over several decades since the pesticide was banned in the United States. However, problems persist in some developing countries where toxic bioaccumulating pesticides are still used.

Bioaccumulation can threaten humans as well as animals. For example, in the United States many federal and state agencies currently warn consumers to avoid or limit their consumption of large predatory fish that contain high levels of mercury, such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel, to avoid risking neurological damage and birth defects.

top of page

© Annenberg Foundation 2014. All rights reserved. Legal Policy