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Biology LibreTexts

44.2B: Energy Sources

  • Page ID
  • The availability of energy and nutrient sources affects species distribution and their adaptation to land or aquatic habitats.


    Assess how energy availability affects species distribution within an ecosystem


    Key Points

    • In land habitats, plant adaptations include life cycles that are dependent on the availability of light; for example, species will flower or grow at varying times to ensure they capture enough available light suitable to their needs.
    • In aquatic ecosystems, species growth and distribution are adapted to deal with the sometimes-limited availability of light due to its absorption by water, plants, suspended particles, microorganisms, and water depth.
    • Ocean upwelling and spring and fall turnovers are important processes regulating the distribution of nutrients in an aquatic ecosystems.
    • Nutrient availability is connected to the energy needs of organisms in aquatic ecosystems since sequestered energy is reused by living organisms from dead ones.

    Key Terms

    • ephemeral: lasting for a short period of time
    • upwelling: the oceanographic phenomenon that occurs when strong, usually seasonal, winds push water away from the coast, bringing cold, nutrient-rich deep waters up to the surface
    • thermocline: a layer within a body of water or air where the temperature changes rapidly with depth

    Energy Availability & Nutrient Cycling as Abiotic Factors

    Energy Sources

    Energy from the sun is captured by green plants, algae, cyanobacteria, and photosynthetic protists. These organisms convert solar energy into the chemical energy needed by all living things. Light availability can be an important abiotic force directly affecting the evolution of adaptations in photosynthesizers. For instance, plants in the understory of a temperate forest are shaded when the trees above them in the canopy completely leaf out in the late spring. Not surprisingly, understory plants have adaptations to successfully capture available light. One such adaptation is the rapid growth of spring ephemeral plants, such as the spring beauty. These spring flowers achieve much of their growth and finish their life cycle (reproduce) early in the season before the trees in the canopy develop leaves.


    Ephemeral plant: The spring beauty is an ephemeral spring plant that flowers early in the spring to avoid competing with larger forest trees for sunlight.

    In aquatic ecosystems, the availability of light may be limited because sunlight is absorbed by water, plants, suspended particles, and resident microorganisms. Toward the bottom of a lake, pond, or ocean, there is a zone that light cannot reach. Photosynthesis cannot take place there and, as a result, a number of adaptations have evolved that enable living things to survive without light. For instance, aquatic plants have photosynthetic tissue near the surface of the water. The broad, floating leaves of a water lily cannot survive without light. In environments such as hydrothermal vents, some bacteria extract energy from inorganic chemicals because there is no light for photosynthesis.

    Nutrient Cycling

    The availability of nutrients in aquatic systems is also an important aspect of energy or photosynthesis. Many organisms sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die in the open water. When this occurs, the energy found in that organism is sequestered for some time unless ocean upwelling occurs. Ocean upwelling is the rising of deep ocean waters that occurs when prevailing winds blow along surface waters near a coastline. As the wind pushes ocean waters offshore, water from the bottom of the ocean moves up to replace this water. As a result, the nutrients once contained in dead organisms become available for reuse by other living organisms.


    Upwelling: Ocean upwelling is an important process that recycles nutrients and energy in the ocean. As wind (green arrows) pushes offshore, it causes water from the ocean bottom (red arrows) to move to the surface, bringing up nutrients from the ocean depths.

    In freshwater systems, the recycling of nutrients occurs in response to air temperature changes. The nutrients at the bottom of lakes are recycled twice each year: in the spring and fall turnover, which recycles nutrients and oxygen from the bottom of a freshwater ecosystem to the top of a body of water. These turnovers are caused by the formation of a thermocline: a layer of water with a temperature that is significantly different from that of the surrounding layers. In wintertime, the surface of lakes found in many northern regions is frozen. However, the water under the ice is slightly warmer, while the water at the bottom of the lake is warmer yet at 4 °C to 5 °C (39.2 °F to 41 °F). Water is densest at 4 °C; therefore, the deepest water is also the densest. The deepest water is oxygen poor because the decomposition of organic material at the bottom of the lake uses up available oxygen that cannot be replaced by means of oxygen diffusion into the water due to the surface ice layer.

    In springtime, air temperatures increase and surface ice melts. When the temperature of the surface water begins to reach 4 °C, the water becomes heavier and sinks to the bottom. The water at the bottom of the lake, displaced by the heavier surface water, rises to the top. As it rises, the sediments and nutrients from the lake bottom are brought along with it. During the summer months, the lake water stratifies, or forms layers, with the warmest water at the lake surface.

    As air temperatures drop in the fall, the temperature of the lake water cools to 4 °C; this causes fall turnover as the heavy cold water sinks and displaces the water at the bottom. The oxygen-rich water at the surface of the lake then moves to the bottom of the lake, while the nutrients at the bottom of the lake rise to the surface (). During the winter, the oxygen at the bottom of the lake is used by decomposers and other organisms requiring oxygen, such as fish.


    Nurient recycling in freshwater systems: The spring and fall turnovers are important processes in freshwater lakes that act to move the nutrients and oxygen at the bottom of deep lakes to the top. Turnover occurs because water has a maximum density at 4 °C. Surface water temperature changes as the seasons progress, causing denser water to sink.