Ecological Efficiency: The Transfer of Energy Between Trophic Levels

Flow chart shows that the ecosystem absorbs 1,700,00 calories per meter squared per year of sunlight. Primary producers have a gross productivity of 20,810 calories per meter squared per year. 13,187 calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat, so the net productivity of primary producers is 7,623 calories per meter squared per year. 4,250 calories per meter squared per year is passed on to decomposers, and the remaining 3,373 calories per meter squared per year is passed on to primary consumers. Thus, the gross productivity of primary consumers is 3,373 calories per meter squared per year. 2,270 calories per meter squared per year is lost to heat and respiration, resulting in a net productivity for primary consumers of 1,103 calories per meter squared per year. 720 calories per meter squared per year is lost to decomposers, and 383 calories per meter squared per year becomes the gross productivity of secondary consumers. 272 calories per meter squared per year is lost to heat and respiration, so the net productivity for secondary consumers is 111 calories per meter squared per year. 90 calories per meter squared per year is lost to decomposers, and the remaining 21 calories per meter squared per year becomes the gross productivity of tertiary consumers. Sixteen calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat, so the net productivity of tertiary consumers is 5 calories per meter squared per year. All this energy is lost to decomposers. In total, decomposers use 5,065 calories per meter squared per year of energy, and 20,810 calories per meter squared per year is lost to respiration and heat.
This conceptual model shows the flow of energy through a spring ecosystem in Silver Springs, Florida. Notice that the energy decreases with each increase in trophic level. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

As illustrated in the image above, as energy flows from primary producers through the various trophic levels, the ecosystem loses large amounts of energy. The main reason for this loss is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that whenever energy is converted from one form to another, there is a tendency toward disorder (entropy) in the system. In biologic systems, this energy takes the form of metabolic heat, which is lost when the organisms consume other organisms. In the Silver Springs ecosystem example, we see that the primary consumers produced 1103 kcal/m2/yr from the 7618 kcal/m2/yr of energy available to them from the primary producers. The measurement of energy transfer efficiency between two successive trophic levels is termed the trophic level transfer efficiency (TLTE) and is defined by the formula:

In Silver Springs, the TLTE between the first two trophic levels was approximately 14.8 percent. The low efficiency of energy transfer between trophic levels is usually the major factor that limits the length of food chains observed in a food web. The fact is, after four to six energy transfers, there is not enough energy left to support another trophic level. In the Lake Ontario example shown in the image below, only three energy transfers occurred between the primary producer, (green algae), and the apex consumer (Chinook salmon).

 The bottom level of the illustration shows primary producers, which include diatoms, green algae, blue-green algae, flagellates, and rotifers. The next level includes the primary consumers that eat primary producers. These include calanoids, waterfleas, and cyclopoids, rotifers and amphipods. The shrimp also eats primary producers. Primary consumers are in turn eaten by secondary consumers, which are typically small fish. The small fish are eaten by larger fish, the tertiary, or apex consumers. The yellow perch, a secondary consumer, eats small fish within its own trophic level. All fish are eaten by the sea lamprey. Thus, the food web is complex with interwoven layers.
(credit: NOAA, GLERL)

Ecologists have many different methods of measuring energy transfers within ecosystems. Measurement difficulty depends on the complexity of the ecosystem and how much access scientists have to observe the ecosystem. In other words, some ecosystems are more difficult to study than others, and sometimes the quantification of energy transfers has to be estimated.

Other parameters are important in characterizing energy flow within an ecosystem. Net production efficiency (NPE) allows ecologists to quantify how efficiently organisms of a particular trophic level incorporate the energy they receive into biomass; it is calculated using the following formula:

Net consumer productivity is the energy content available to the organisms of the next trophic level. Assimilation is the biomass (energy content generated per unit area) of the present trophic level after accounting for the energy lost due to incomplete ingestion of food, energy used for respiration, and energy lost as waste. Incomplete ingestion refers to the fact that some consumers eat only a part of their food. For example, when a lion kills an antelope, it will eat everything except the hide and bones. The lion is missing the energy-rich bone marrow inside the bone, so the lion does not make use of all the calories its prey could provide.

Thus, NPE measures how efficiently each trophic level uses and incorporates the energy from its food into biomass to fuel the next trophic level. In general, cold-blooded animals (ectotherms), such as invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, use less of the energy they obtain for respiration and heat than warm-blooded animals (endotherms), such as birds and mammals. The extra heat generated in endotherms, although an advantage in terms of the activity of these organisms in colder environments, is a major disadvantage in terms of NPE. Therefore, many endotherms have to eat more often than ectotherms to get the energy they need for survival. In general, NPE for ectotherms is an order of magnitude (10x) higher than for endotherms. For example, the NPE for a caterpillar eating leaves has been measured at 18 percent, whereas the NPE for a squirrel eating acorns may be as low as 1.6 percent.

The inefficiency of energy use by warm-blooded animals has broad implications for the world’s food supply. It is widely accepted that the meat industry uses large amounts of crops to feed livestock, and because the NPE is low, much of the energy from animal feed is lost. For example, it costs about $0.01 to produce 1000 dietary calories (kcal) of corn or soybeans, but approximately $0.19 to produce a similar number of calories growing cattle for beef consumption. The same energy content of milk from cattle is also costly, at approximately $0.16 per 1000 kcal. Much of this difference is due to the low NPE of cattle. Thus, there has been a growing movement worldwide to promote the consumption of nonmeat and nondairy foods so that less energy is wasted feeding animals for the meat industry.

Source:

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


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