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Biology LibreTexts

46.2C: Transfer of Energy between Trophic Levels

  • Page ID
    14227
  • Energy is lost as it is transferred between trophic levels; the efficiency of this energy transfer is measured by NPE and TLTE.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Illustrate the transfer of energy between trophic levels

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Energy decreases as it moves up trophic levels because energy is lost as metabolic heat when the organisms from one trophic level are consumed by organisms from the next level.
    • Trophic level transfer efficiency (TLTE) measures the amount of energy that is transferred between trophic levels.
    • A food chain can usually sustain no more than six energy transfers before all the energy is used up.
    • Net production efficiency (NPE) measures how efficiently each trophic level uses and incorporates the energy from its food into biomass to fuel the next trophic level.
    • Endotherms have a low NPE and use more energy for heat and respiration than ectotherms, so most endotherms have to eat more often than ectotherms to get the energy they need for survival.
    • Since cattle and other livestock have low NPEs, it is more costly to produce energy content in the form of meat and other animal products than in the form of corn, soybeans, and other crops.

    Key Terms

    • assimilation: the biomass 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
    • net consumer productivity: energy content available to the organisms of the next trophic level
    • net production efficiency (NPE): measure of the ability of a trophic level to convert the energy it receives from the previous trophic level into biomass
    • trophic level transfer efficiency (TLTE): energy transfer efficiency between two successive trophic levels

    Ecological efficiency: the transfer of energy between trophic levels

    Large amounts of energy are lost from the ecosystem between one trophic level and the next level as energy flows from the primary producers through the various trophic levels of consumers and decomposers. 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 means a great deal of energy is lost as metabolic heat when the organisms from one trophic level are consumed by the next level. 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:

    TLTE=productionatpresenttrophiclevelproductionatprevioustrophiclevelx100TLTE=productionatpresenttrophiclevelproductionatprevioustrophiclevelx100

    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 ecosystem food web, only three energy transfers occurred between the primary producer (green algae) and the tertiary, or apex, consumer (Chinook salmon).

    image

    Food web of Lake Ontario: This food web shows the interactions between organisms across trophic levels in the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Primary producers are outlined in green, primary consumers in orange, secondary consumers in blue, and tertiary (apex) consumers in purple. Arrows point from an organism that is consumed to the organism that consumes it. Notice how some lines point to more than one trophic level. For example, the opossum shrimp eats both primary producers and primary consumers.

    Ecologists have many different methods of measuring energy transfers within ecosystems. Some transfers are easier or more difficult to measure depending 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; sometimes the quantification of energy transfers has to be estimated.

    Net production efficiency

    Another main parameter that is important in characterizing energy flow within an ecosystem is the net production efficiency. 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:

    NPE=netconsumerproductivityassimilationx100NPE=netconsumerproductivityassimilationx100

    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 obtain 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. 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 non-meat and non-dairy foods so that less energy is wasted feeding animals for the meat industry.