You must be familiar with the shape of a pyramid. The base of a pyramid is broad and it narrows down at the apex. One gets a similar shape, whether you express the food or energy relationship between organisms at different trophic level.
Thus, relationship is expressed in terms of number, biomass or energy. The base of each pyramid represents the producers or the first trophic level while the apex represents tertiary or top level consumer.
The three ecological pyramids that are usually studied are
- pyramid of number
- pyramid of biomass and
- pyramid of energy.
Any calculations of energy content, biomass, or numbers has to include all organisms at that trophic level. No generalisations we make will be true if we take only a few individuals at any trophic level into account. Also a given organism may occupy more than one trophic level simultaneously. One must remember that the trophic level represents a functional level, not a species as such.
A given species may occupy more than one trophic level in the same ecosystem at the same time; for example, a sparrow is a primary consumer when it eats seeds, fruits, peas, and a secondary consumer when it eats insects and worms.
Can you work out how many trophic levels human beings function at in a food chain? In most ecosystems, all the pyramids, of number, of energy and biomass are upright, i.e., producers are more in number and biomass than the herbivores, and herbivores are more in number and biomass than the carnivores.
Also energy at a lower trophic level is always more than at a higher level. There are exceptions to this generalisation: If you were to count the number of insects feeding on a big tree what kind of pyramid would you get? Now add an estimate of the number of small birds depending on the insects, as also the number of larger birds eating the smaller.
Draw the shape you would get. The pyramid of biomass in sea is also generally inverted because the biomass of fishes far exceeds that of phytoplankton. Isn’t that a paradox? How would you explain this? Pyramid of energy is always upright, can never be inverted, because when energy flows from a particular trophic level to the next trophic level, some energy is always lost as heat at each step.
Each bar in the energy pyramid indicates the amount of energy present at each trophic level in a given time or annually per unit area. However, there are certain limitations of ecological pyramids such as it does not take into account the same species belonging to two or more trophic levels.
It assumes a simple food chain, something that almost never exists in nature; it does not accommodate a food web. Moreover, saprophytes are not given any place in ecological pyramids even though they play a vital role in the ecosystem.