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Ecology: Trophic Transfer of Energy in an Ecosystem

Updated on April 30, 2015

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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    • profile image

      Ahmed 

      4 years ago

      it is good continuou by this way.

    • profile image

      sweety 

      4 years ago

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

    • profile image

      sweety 

      4 years ago

      Energy transfer in pond ecosystem

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      5 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      naomi thevenin 

      5 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?

    • profile image

      awsomeness is a way of life :) 

      5 years ago

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

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      6 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      blin16 

      6 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?

    • profile image

      claire 

      6 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

    • profile image

      Donald 

      6 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.

    • profile image

      Donald 

      6 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.

    • profile image

      baby_gurl 

      6 years ago

      really great. Helped me with my presentation

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      6 years ago

      @bob marley: Energy and biomass, to generalize.

    • profile image

      bob marley 

      6 years ago

      what is transferred in an eco system

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      6 years ago

      @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.

    • profile image

      linda 

      6 years ago

      *matter

    • profile image

      linda 

      6 years ago

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

    • profile image

      waqas ahmed 

      6 years ago

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

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      6 years ago

      No problem Olivia :) I hope you found this helpful

    • profile image

      olivia zenva 

      6 years ago

      thanks for the anwers

    • Londonlady profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Writes 

      6 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      shweta 

      6 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?

    • profile image

      john 

      7 years ago

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

    • profile image

      loyd mahinay 

      7 years ago

      DETAILS are here so why i am interesting!

    • profile image

      Emily 

      7 years ago

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

    • profile image

      RYAN T. CUBILLAN 

      8 years ago

      WHY IS IT AN ECOSYSTEM ARE COMPOSED INTO A LIVING THINGS AND NON_LIVING THINGS

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