Ecology: Trophic Transfer of Energy in an Ecosystem

What is an Ecosystem?

Ecology, the study of the interactions of living organisms with one another and with their environment, is the study of ecosystems, an ecological system encompassing a community and all the physical aspects of its habitat.

A place where a certain species lives is called its habitat, and groups of different species living together are called a community. All of the physical aspects of a community are called an ecosystem.

The Transfer of Energy

Energy transfer in an ecosystem, pyramid model
Energy transfer in an ecosystem, pyramid model | Source

Energy Flow in an Ecosystem

Ecosystems run on energy, which comes in from the sun. Life is possible because photosynthesis captures the light energy from the sun and turns it into the chemical energy of organic molecules. This is a basic principle in ecology. The organic molecule compounds are composed of what we call food, which gives us energy.

The energy budget of an ecosystem is determined by primary productivity, the amount of organic materials that the photosynthetic organisms of an ecosystem, produce.

Energy flows through food webs, a network of feeding relationships in an environment, which contain food chains, a linear pathway of energy transfer in an ecosystem. Food chains are composed of trophic levels: a group of organisms that have the same source of energy.

  • The lowest trophic level consists of primary producers: plants, algae, bacteria...etc.
  • The 2nd level: cows, horses, chickens, ducks...etc.
  • The 3rd level: tigers, wolves, snakes...etc
  • The 4th level: tertiary consumers (Top carnivores) such as a hawk eating a snake. A carnivore eating another carnivore.

Omnivores are animals that eat both plants and animals.

Transfer of Energy

Diagram of the transfer of energy and heat loss in an ecosystem
Diagram of the transfer of energy and heat loss in an ecosystem

Where Do Organisms Get Energy From?

An organism acquires energy from the food it eats. Some of that energy is stored as fat, some is lost through wastes, urine, and feces. But most escapes as heat, which is produced when energy is transferred from one form to another. Only 10% of energy if incorporated into the next trophic level, so because the loss of energy from one level to the next is so great, the number of trophic levels is limited.

Loss of Energy at Each Transfer Step

To sum up, once a producer receives energy from the sun, it is eaten by a primary level consumer and gives around 10% of its energy to the primary level consumer. 90% is lost as heat. This process of ecology happens in an ecosystem all the time. The transfer of energy in an ecosystem is very inefficient, that is why consumers at the top of the food chain must constantly eat a lot of food, because less and less energy is available as we go further into the food chain.

Trophic Levels in an Ecosystem
Trophic Levels in an Ecosystem

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Comments 26 comments

Ahmed 2 years ago

it is good continuou by this way.

sweety 3 years ago

Hi im sweety .i ve a assigment on energy transfer in pond ecosystem &ive to submit the project on 1/3/14

sweety 3 years ago

Energy transfer in pond ecosystem

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Londonlady 3 years ago Author

When one animal eats another, they absorb some of that energy from their meal. Then they give off that energy as they use it for basic metabolic functions or, for example, run off to find more food.

naomi thevenin 4 years ago

This helped me with my science hw a lot. thank you. but i am still stuck on the question what happens to the amount of energy as one group of the energy pyramid eats the other?

awsomeness is a way of life :) 4 years ago

this has helped me will my GCSE biology a lot thank you. xx :)

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Londonlady 4 years ago Author

Light energy is absorbed into the ground, reflected off water (ie lakes, oceans, ponds, clouds). Remember that plants are only absorbing the green light, and the rest of that light they reflect (which is why you see green). Heat energy is absorbed into the ground, by rocks...etc.

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blin16 4 years ago

Very little energy received by a plant is available to the organisms in the next trophic level. What happens to the rest of the energy?

claire 4 years ago

I think that the answer that is post at the top has short ideas it must have a complete thought sop that the researcher will understand the meaning

Donald 4 years ago

This is quite gud, but i think that amount of energy transferred to the next trophic level ranges according to the amount of activity the preceeding organism has actually underwent.

Donald 4 years ago

This is quite gud, but i think that amount of energy transferred to the next trophic level ranges according to the amount of activity the preceeding organism has actually underwent.

baby_gurl 4 years ago

really great. Helped me with my presentation

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Londonlady 4 years ago Author

@bob marley: Energy and biomass, to generalize.

bob marley 4 years ago

what is transferred in an eco system

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Londonlady 4 years ago Author

@Linda: Matter is cycled throughout the ecosystem. It can't be created or destroyed so it HAS to be converted. Let's say we're a plant, at the bottom of the food chain, and we're eaten by a herbivore, that doesn't mean that we no longer exist on this planet. It just means we're inside an animal's stomach now. So let's say a few hours later a wolf comes along and eats the herbivore. Now the wolf has the plant matter inside of him because he ate the animal that ate the plant...and this goes on and on. This is just one way it can flow within an ecosystem. Let me know if you want more examples.

linda 4 years ago


linda 4 years ago

how does a food web oranize how matte flow in an ecosystem ?

waqas ahmed 4 years ago

HELped ME in My AssIgnemT....... thnx gurl :D

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Londonlady 5 years ago Author

No problem Olivia :) I hope you found this helpful

olivia zenva 5 years ago

thanks for the anwers

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Londonlady 5 years ago Author

A TON of people seem to make this more confusing than it really is. It's very simple. There are 4-5 trophic levels. 1st level: Producers get energy from the sun.

~80% heat is lost~

2nd level: Primary consumers(rabbits) eat the producers(plants)

~80% more heat is lost~

3rd level: Secondary consumers(a lion) eat primary consumers(a rabbit)

~80% more heat is lost~

....eventually there is so much heat loss that it is impossible to keep adding trophic levels because there is not enough energy to sustain the higher levels.

And that, is it.

shweta 5 years ago

is this whole article the transfer of energy in ecosystem ?? i have my assignment on ecology and if this is all on this topic than it will helpme .. so is this all information about the transfer of eenergy in an ecosystem?

john 5 years ago

20% of the energy in a plant is transferred to a primary consumer

loyd mahinay 5 years ago

DETAILS are here so why i am interesting!

Emily 6 years ago

I still don't understand the tranfer of energy between biotic elements.

RYAN T. CUBILLAN 6 years ago


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