14.4 Energy Flow

Except for the deep sea hydro-thermal ecosystem, sun is the only source of energy for all ecosystems on Earth. Of the incident solar radiation less than 50 per cent of it is photosynthetically active radiation (PAR).

We know that plants and photosynthetic and chemosynthetic bacteria (autotrophs), fix suns’ radiant energy to make food from simple inorganic materials. Plants capture only 2-10 per cent of the PAR and this small amount of energy sustains the entire living world. So, it is very important to know how the solar energy captured by plants flows through different organisms of an ecosystem.

All organisms are dependent for their food on producers, either directly or indirectly. So you find unidirectional flow of energy from the sun to producers and then to consumers. Is this in keeping with the first law of thermodynamics? Further, ecosystems are not exempt from the Second Law of thermodynamics.

They need a constant supply of energy to synthesise the molecules they require, to counteract the universal tendency toward increasing disorderliness. The green plant in the ecosystem-terminology are called producers. In a terrestrial ecosystem, major producers are herbaceous and woody plants.

Likewise, primary producers in an aquatic ecosystem are various species like phytoplankton, algae and higher plants. You have read about the food chains and webs that exit in nature. Starting from the plants (or producers) food chains or rather webs are formed such that an animal feeds on a plant or on another animal and in turn is food for another.

The chain or web is formed because of this interdependency. No energy that is trapped into an organism remains in it for ever. The energy trapped by the producer, hence, is either passed on to a consumer or the organism dies. Death of organism is the beginning of the detritus food chain/web.

All animals depend on plants (directly or indirectly) for their food needs. They are hence called consumers and also heterotrophs. If they feed on the producers, the plants, they are called primary consumers, and if the animals eat other animals which in turn eat the plants (or their produce) they are called secondary consumers.

Likewise, you could have tertiary consumers too. Obviously the primary consumers will be herbivores. Some common herbivores are insects, birds and mammals in terrestrial ecosystem and molluscs in aquatic ecosystem.

The consumers that feed on these herbivores are carnivores, or more correctly primary carnivores (though secondary consumers). Those animals that depend on the primary carnivores for food are labelled secondary carnivores. A simple grazing food chain (GFC) is depicted below:

Grass ------> Goat --------->Man

The detritus food chain (DFC) begins with dead organic matter. It is made up of decomposers which are heterotrophic organisms, mainly fungi and bacteria. They meet their energy and nutrient requirements by degrading dead organic matter or detritus.

These are also known as saprotrophs (sapro: to decompose). Decomposers secrete digestive enzymes that breakdown dead and waste materials into simple, inorganic materials, which are subsequently absorbed by them.

In an aquatic ecosystem, GFC is the major conduit for energy flow. As against this, in a terrestrial ecosystem, a much larger fraction of energy flows through the detritus food chain than through the GFC.

Detritus food chain may be connected with the grazing food chain at some levels: some of the organisms of DFC are prey to the GFC animals, and in a natural ecosystem, some animals like cockroaches, crows, etc., are omnivores. These natural interconnection of food chains make it a food web. How would you classify human beings!

Organisms occupy a place in the natural surroundings or in a community according to their feeding relationship with other organisms. Based on the source of their nutrition or food, organisms occupy a specific place in the food chain that is known as their trophic level.

Producers belong to the first trophic level, herbivores (primary consumer) to the second and carnivores (secondary consumer) to the third.

The important point to note is that the amount of energy decreases at successive trophic levels. When any organism dies it is converted to detritus or dead biomass that serves as an energy source for decomposers.

Organisms at each trophic level depend on those at the lower trophic level for their energy demands. Each trophic level has a certain mass of living material at a particular time called as the standing crop. The standing crop is measured as the mass of living organisms (biomass) or the number in a unit area. The biomass of a species is expressed in terms of fresh or dry weight.

Measurement of biomass in terms of dry weight is more accurate. Why? The number of trophic levels in the grazing food chain is restricted as the transfer of energy follows 10 per cent law – only 10 per cent of the energy is transferred to each trophic level from the lower trophic level. In nature, it is possible to have so many levels – producer, herbivore, primary carnivore, secondary carnivore in the grazing food chain. Do you think there is any such limitation in a detritus food chain?

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