7D – Biomass & availability of energy

Supporting article D: Comparisons between the biomass and the availability of energy on various trophic levels


The main concepts we are trying to get across in this section concern how energy moves through an ecosystem. If you can understand this, you are in good shape, because then you have an idea of how ecosystems are balanced, how they may be affected by human activities, and how pollutants will move through an ecosystem.

Roles of Organisms
Organisms can be either producers or consumers in terms of energy flow through an ecosystem. Producers convert energy from the environment into carbon bonds, such as those found in the sugar glucose. Plants are the most obvious examples of producers; plants take energy from sunlight and use it to convert carbon dioxide into glucose (or other sugars). Algae and cyanobacteria are also photosynthetic producers, like plants. Other producers include bacteria living around deep-sea vents. These bacteria take energy from chemicals coming from the Earth’s interior and use it to make sugars. Other bacteria living deep underground can also produce sugars from such inorganic sources. Another word for producers is autotrophs.

Consumers get their energy from the carbon bonds made by the producers. Another word for a consumer is a heterotroph. Based on what they eat, we can distinguish between 4 types of heterotrophs:

consumer           trophic level         food source

Herbivores         primary               plants

Carnivores         secondary or higher   animals

Omnivores          all levels            plants & animals

Detritivores       ---------------       detritus

A trophic level refers to the organisms position in the food chain. Autotrophs are at the base. Organisms that eat autotrophs are called herbivores or primary consumers. An organism that eats herbivores is a carnivore and a secondary consumer. A carnivore which eats a carnivore which eats a herbivore is a tertiary consumer, and so on. It is important to note that many animals do not specialize in their diets. Omnivores (such as humans) eat both animals and plants. Further, except for some specialists, most carnivores don’t limit their diet to organisms of only one trophic level. Frogs, for instance, don’t discriminate between herbivorous and carnivorous bugs in their diet. If it’s the right size, and moving at the right distance, chances are the frog will eat it. It’s not as if the frog has brain cells to waste wondering if it’s going to mess up the food chain by being a secondary consumer one minute and a quaternary consumer the next.

The diagram above shows how both energy and inorganic nutrients flow through the ecosystem. We need to define some terminology first. Energy “flows” through the ecosystem in the form of carbon-carbon bonds. When respiration occurs, the carbon-carbon bonds are broken and the carbon is combined with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. This process releases the energy, which is either used by the organism (to move its muscles, digest food, excrete wastes, think, etc.) or the energy may be lost as heat. The dark arrows represent the movement of this energy. Note that all energy comes from the sun, and that the ultimate fate of all energy in ecosystems is to be lost as heat. Energy does not recycle!!

The other component shown in the diagram are the inorganic nutrients. They are inorganic because they do not contain carbon-carbon bonds. These inorganic nutrients include the phosphorous in your teeth, bones, and cellular membranes; the nitrogen in your amino acids (the building blocks of protein); and the iron in your blood (to name just a few of the inorganic nutrients). The movement of the inorganic nutrients is represented by the open arrows. Note that the autotrophs obtain these inorganic nutrients from the inorganic nutrient pool, which is usually the soil or water surrounding the plants or algae. These inorganic nutrients are passed from organism to organism as one organism is consumed by another. Ultimately, all organisms die and become detritus, food for the decomposers. At this stage, the last of the energy is extracted (and lost as heat) and the inorganic nutrients are returned to the soil or water to be taken up again. The inorganic nutrients are recycled, the energy is not.

Many of us, when we hear the word “nutrient” immediately think of calories and the carbon-carbon bonds that hold the caloric energy. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT that you be careful in your use of the word nutrient in this sense. When writing about energy flow and inorganic nutrient flow in an ecosystem, you must be clear as to what you are referring. Unmodified by “inorganic” or “organic”, the word “nutrient” can leave your reader unsure of what you mean. This is one case in which the scientific meaning of a word is very dependent on its context. Another example would be the word “respiration”, which to the layperson usually refers to “breathing”, but which means “the extraction of energy from carbon-carbon bonds at the cellular level” to most scientists (except those scientists studying breathing, who use respiration in the lay sense).

To summarize: In the flow of energy and inorganic nutrients through the ecosystem, a few generalizations can be made:
1. The ultimate source of energy (for most ecosystems) is the sun
2. The ultimate fate of energy in ecosystems is for it to be lost as heat.
3. Energy and nutrients are passed from organism to organism through the food chain as one organism eats another.
4. Decomposers remove the last energy from the remains of organisms.
5. Inorganic nutrients are cycled, energy is not.

Food Chains and Webs:
A food chain is the path of food from a given final consumer back to a producer. For instance, a typical food chain in a field ecosystem might be:

grass —> grasshopper –> mouse —> snake —> hawk

Note that even though I said the food chain is the path of food from a given final consumer back to a producer we typically list a food chain from producer on the left (or at the bottom) to final consumer on the right (or at the top). Note to international readers: In Hebrew or Aramaic, or other languages which are read right-to-left, is it customary to list the food chains in the reverse order? By the way, you should be able to look at the food chain above and identify the autotrophs and heterotrophs, and classify each as a herbivore, carnivore, etc. You should also be able to determine that the hawk is a quaternary consumer.

The real world, of course, is more complicated than a simple food chain. While many organisms do specialize in their diets (anteaters come to mind as a specialist), other organisms do not. Hawks don’t limit their diets to snakes, snakes eat things other than mice, mice eat grass as well as grasshoppers, and so on. A more realistic depiction of who eats whom is called a food web; an example is shown below:

It is when we have a picture of a food web in front of us that the definition of food chain makes more sense. We can now see that a food web consists of interlocking food chains, and that the only way to untangle the chains is to trace back along a given food chain to its source.

The food webs you see here are grazing food chains since at their base are producers which the herbivores then graze on. While grazing food chains are important, in nature they are outnumbered by detritus-based food chains. In detritus-based food chains, decomposers are at the base of the food chain, and sustain the carnivores which feed on them. In terms of the weight (or biomass) of animals in many ecosystems, more of their body mass can be traced back to detritus than to living producers.

The concept of biomass is important. It is a general principle that the further removed a trophic level is from its source (detritus or producer), the less biomass it will contain (biomass here would refer to the combined weight of all the organisms in the trophic level). This reduction in biomass occurs for several reasons:
1. not everything in the lower levels gets eaten
2. not everything that is eaten is digested
3. energy is always being lost as heat

It is important to remember that the decrease in number is best detected in terms or biomass. Numbers of organisms are unreliable in this case because of the great variation in the biomass of individual organisms. For instance, squirrels feed on acorns. The oak trees in a forest will always outnumber the squirrels in terms of combined weight, but there may actually be more squirrels than oak trees. Remember that an individual oak tree is huge, weighing thousands of kilograms, while an individual squirrel weighs perhaps 1 kilogram at best. There are few exceptions to the pyramid of biomass scheme. One occurs in aquatic systems where the algae may be both outnumbered and outweighed by the organisms that feed on the algae. The algae can support the greater biomass of the next trophic level only because they can reproduce as fast as they are eaten. In this way, they are never completely consumed. It is interesting to note that this exception to the rule of the pyramid of biomass also is a partial exception to at least 2 of the 3 reasons for the pyramid of biomass given above. While not all the algae are consumed, a greater proportion of them are, and while not completely digestible, algae are far more nutritious overall than the average woody plant is (most organisms cannot digest wood and extract energy from it).

A generalization exists among ecologists that on average, about 10% of the energy available in one trophic level will be passed on to the next; this is primarily due to the 3 reasons given above. Therefore, it is also reasonable to assume that in terms of biomass, each trophic level will weigh only about 10% of the level below it, and 10x as much as the level above it. It also seems, however, that every time I go to measure, test, or model this assumption I run into an inconsistency, so take this generalization with a big grain of salt. Still, it comes in useful In terms of human diet and feeding the world’s population, consider this. If we all ate corn, there would be enough food for 10x as many of us as compared to a world where we all eat beef (or chicken, fish, pork, etc.). Another way of looking at it is this. Every time you eat meat, you are taking food out of the mouths of 9 other people, who could be fed with the plant material that was fed to the animal you are eating. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the general idea.