Energy Flow in Ecosystem

An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms interacting with their biotic  (other living organisms) and abiotic  (physical environment) components. Ecosystems play a crucial role in climate regulation, soil, water and air quality.

Energy Flow in Ecosystem Energy Flow in Ecosystem

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Table of contents

    The primary source of energy in the ecosystem originates from the sun. The energy from the sun transforms into chemical energy during photosynthesis. Plants in the terrestrial environment convert the sun's energy. Meanwhile, in aquatic ecosystems, aquatic plants, microalgae (phytoplankton), macroalgae and cyanobacteria convert the sun's energy. The consumers can then use transformed energy from the producers in the food web.

    Energy transfer in the ecosystems

    According to how they obtain nutrition, we can divide living organisms into three main groups: producers, consumers, and saprobionts (decomposers).


    A producer is an organism that makes its food, such as glucose, during photosynthesis. These include photosynthetic plants. These producers are also termed autotrophs.

    An autotroph is any organism that can use inorganic compounds, such as the carbon from carbon dioxide, to make organic molecules, such as glucose.

    Some organisms will use both autotrophic and heterotrophic ways to obtain energy. Heterotrophs are organisms that ingest organic matter made from producers. For example, the pitcher plant will both photosynthesise and consume insects.

    Autotrophs are not only photosynthetic organisms (photoautotrophs). Another group you may come across are the chemoautotrophs. Chemoautotrophs will use chemical energy to produce their food. These organisms usually reside in harsh environments, e.g., sulfur-oxidising bacteria found in marine and freshwater anaerobic environments.

    Let's dive deeper into the ocean, where the sunlight does not reach. Here is where you will meet chemoautotrophs who dwell in deep-sea hot springs and hydrothermal vents. These organisms create food for deep-sea dwellers, such as deep-sea octopuses (Figure 1) and zombie worms. These dwellers do look quite funky!

    In addition, organic particles, which can be living and non-living, sink to the bottom of the ocean to provide another food source. This includes tiny bacteria and sinking pellets produced by copepods and tunicates.

    Energy Flow in Ecosystem, dumbo octopus, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A dumbo octopus dwelling in the deep sea


    Consumers are organisms that obtain their energy for reproduction, movement and growth by consuming other organisms. We also refer to them as heterotrophs. There are three groups of consumers found in ecosystems:

    • Herbivores
    • Carnivores
    • Omnivores


    Herbivores are organisms that eat the producer, such as plants or macroalgae. They are the primary consumers in the food web.


    Carnivores are organisms that consume herbivores, carnivores and omnivores to obtain their nutrition. They are the secondary and tertiary consumers (and so on). There are a limited number of consumers in food pyramids because the transfer of energy decreases until it is not enough to sustain another trophic level. Food pyramids usually stop after the tertiary or quaternary consumer.

    Trophic levels refer to the different stages in a food pyramid.


    Omnivores are organisms that will consume both producers and other consumers. They can therefore be primary consumers. For example, humans are primary consumers when we eat vegetables. When humans consume meat, you will most likely be a secondary consumer (since you mainly consume herbivores).


    Saprobionts, also known as decomposers, are organisms that break down organic matter into inorganic compounds. To digest the organic matter, saprobiotics release digestive enzymes, which will break down the tissue of the decaying organism. The major groups of saprobionts include fungi and bacteria.

    Saprobionts are extremely important in the nutrient cycles as they release inorganic nutrients such as ammonium and phosphate ions back into the soil, which producers can access once again. This completes the entire nutrient cycle, and the process starts again.

    Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants. They can live in the root networks of the plants and provide them with essential nutrients. In return, the plant will provide sugars, such as glucose, for the fungi.

    Energy transfer and productivity

    Plants can capture only 1-3% of solar energy, and this happens due to four main factors:

    1. Clouds and dust reflect over 90% of the solar energy, and the atmosphere absorbs it.

    2. Other limiting factors may limit the amount of solar energy that can be taken, such as carbon dioxide, water, and temperature.

    3. The light may not reach the chlorophyll in chloroplasts.

    4. The plant can absorb only certain wavelengths (700-400nm). Non-usable wavelengths will be reflected.

    Chlorophyll refers to pigments within plant chloroplasts. These pigments are necessary for photosynthesis.

    Unicellular organisms, such as cyanobacteria, also contain photosynthetic pigments. These include chlorophyll-α and β-carotene.

    Net primary production

    Net primary production (NPP) is the chemical energy stored after what is lost during respiration, and this is usually around 20-50%. This energy is available to the plant for growth and reproduction.

    We will use the equation below to explain the NPP of the producers:

    Net primary production (NPP) = Gross primary production (GPP) - Respiration

    Gross primary production (GPP) represents the total chemical energy stored in the plant biomass. The units for NPP and GPP are expressed as units of biomass per land area per time, such as g/m2/year. Meanwhile, respiration is the loss of energy. The difference between these two factors is your NPP. Approximately 10% of the energy will be available for primary consumers. Meanwhile, secondary and tertiary consumers will get up to 20% from the primary consumers.

    This results due to the following:

    • The whole organism is not consumed - some parts are not eaten, such as the bones.

    • Some parts cannot be digested. For example, humans cannot digest cellulose present in the plant cell walls.

    • Energy is lost in materials excreted, including urine and faeces.

    • Energy is lost as heat during respiration.

    Although humans cannot digest cellulose, it still aids our digestion! Cellulose will help whatever you have consumed to move through your digestive tract.

    NPP of consumers have a slightly different equation:

    Net primary production (NPP) = Chemical energy store of ingested food - (Energy lost in refuse + Respiration)

    As you now understand, the energy available will become lower and lower at each higher trophic level.

    Trophic levels

    A trophic level refers to a position of an organism within the food chain/pyramid. Each trophic level will have a different amount of biomass available. The units for biomass in these trophic levels include kJ/m3/year.

    Biomass is the organic material made from living organisms, such as plants and animals.

    To calculate the percentage efficiency of the energy transfer at each trophic level, we can use the following equation:

    Efficiency transfer (%) = Biomass in the higher trophic levelBiomass in the lower trophic level x 100

    Food chains

    A food chain/pyramid is a simplified way to describe the feeding relationship between producers and consumers. When the energy moves up to higher trophic levels, a large amount will be lost as heat (about 80-90%).

    Food webs

    A food web is a more realistic representation of the energy flow within the ecosystem. Most organisms will have multiple food sources, and many food chains will be linked. Food webs are extremely complex. If you take humans as an example, we will consume many sources of food.

    Energy Flow in Ecosystem, aquatic food web trophic levels, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An aquatic food web and its different trophic levels

    We will use Figure 2 as an example of an aquatic food web. The producers here are coontail, cottontail and algae. The algae are consumed by three different herbivores. These herbivores, such as bullfrog tadpole, are then consumed by multiple secondary consumers. The apex predators (predators at the top of the food chain/web) are humans and the great blue heron. All waste, including faeces and dead organisms, will be broken down by decomposers, in the case of this particular food chain, bacteria.

    Human impact on the food webs

    Humans have had a significant impact on the food webs, often disrupting the energy flow between the trophic levels. Some examples include:

    • Excessive consumption. This has led to the removal of important organisms in the ecosystem (e.g., overfishing and illegal hunting of endangered species).
    • Removal of apex predators. This leads to an excess of lower-level consumers.
    • Introduction of non-native species. These non-native species disrupt native animals and crops.
    • Pollution. Excessive consumption will lead to excessive waste (e.g., littering and pollution by burning fossil fuels). A large number of organisms will be sensitive to pollution.
    • Excessive land use. This leads to the displacement and loss of habitats.
    • Climate change. Many organisms cannot tolerate changes in their climate, and this consequently leads to habitat displacement and biodiversity loss.

    The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest. The oil rig exploded, and the oil spilled into the ocean. The total discharge was estimated at 780,000 m3, which had a detrimental impact on marine wildlife. The spill affected over 8,000 species, including coral reefs being discoloured or damaged up to 4000ft deep, bluefish tuna experiencing irregular heartbeats, cardiac arrests, among other issues.

    Energy Flow in Ecosystem - Key takeaways

    • An ecosystem is an interaction between the organisms (biotic) and their physical environment (abiotic). Ecosystems regulate the climate, air, soil and water quality.
    • Autotrophs harvest energy from the sun/chemical energy sources. The producers transform the energy into organic compounds.
    • Energy is transferred from the producers when consumers consume them. The energy travels within the food web to different trophic levels. Energy is transferred back into the ecosystem by decomposers.
    • Humans have had a negative impact on food webs. Some of the effects include climate change, habitat loss, the introduction of non-native species and pollution.
    Energy Flow in Ecosystem Energy Flow in Ecosystem
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Energy Flow in Ecosystem

    How do energy and matter move through an ecosystem?

    The autotrophs (producers) harvest energy from the sun or chemical sources. The energy moves through the trophic levels within the foodwebs when the producers are consumed.

    What is the role of energy in the ecosystem?

    Energy is transferred within the food web, and organisms use it to carry out complex tasks. Animals will use energy for growth, reproduction and life, in general.

    What are the examples of energy in an ecosystem?

    Sun’s energy and chemical energy.

    How does the energy flow into the ecosystem?

    The energy will be harvested from physical sources such as chemical compounds and the sun. The energy will enter the ecosystem through the autotrophs.

    What is the role of an ecosystem?

    The ecosystem is essential in regulating climate, air, water and soil quality.

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