How Does An Energy Pyramid Work?

An energy pyramid, also known as an ecological pyramid or trophic pyramid, is a graphical model that depicts the flow of energy through trophic levels in a given ecosystem (Britannica, 2024). Energy pyramids illustrate the loss of energy at each trophic level, demonstrating how energy is transferred between organisms via feeding relationships.

The trophic pyramid model was proposed by Raymond Lindeman in 1942 to analyze the efficiency of energy transfer between ecosystem components (Britannica, 2024). The width of each level represents biomass or population, while the height represents available energy. Pyramids demonstrate that energy transfers decrease between each trophic level, as organisms cannot convert all consumed energy into biomass.

Energy pyramids are important ecological tools as they illustrate key energy concepts and relationships within ecosystems. These models demonstrate how available energy decreases through the food chain, with energy being lost to metabolic processes and heat at each trophic level. Understanding energy flow through ecosystems is crucial for analyzing community structure and dynamics.

Trophic Levels

A trophic level refers to the position an organism occupies in a food chain (Britannica 2022). It describes the organism’s feeding level in an ecological community. Organisms in a food chain can be categorized into different trophic levels based on their source of nutrition and how they obtain food.

The main trophic levels are (Wikipedia 2022):

  • Producers – Organisms that can produce their own food through photosynthesis. They form the first trophic level. Examples are plants, phytoplankton and algae.
  • Primary consumers – Organisms that feed directly on producers. They form the second trophic level. Examples are zooplankton, insects, molluscs.
  • Secondary consumers – Organisms that feed on primary consumers. They form the third trophic level. Examples are fish, frogs, lizards.
  • Tertiary consumers – Organisms that feed on secondary consumers. They form the fourth trophic level. Examples are birds of prey, foxes, snakes.
  • Apex predators – Organisms at the top of the food chain with no predators. They form the fifth trophic level. Examples are polar bears, orca whales, lions.

Organisms are constrained to their specific trophic level based on their feeding relationships. Each level provides nutrition for the next higher trophic level (Biology Online 2022).

Energy transfer between trophic levels

energy pyramid diagram

Energy is transferred between trophic levels through feeding relationships. As energy flows from one trophic level to the next, significant amounts are lost at each transfer. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy can neither be created nor destroyed in an isolated system. However, energy can change forms.

When animals feed on plants or other animals, only 10% of the energy at one trophic level is transferred to the next trophic level. The remaining 90% of energy is lost as heat. This is known as the 10 percent law, first proposed by Raymond Lindeman in 1942 (Testbook). As a result, the amount of available energy decreases significantly along each link in the food chain.

The loss of energy at each trophic level gives ecological pyramids their characteristic shape, with a large base tapering to a pointed top. More organisms can be supported at the producer level than at the top carnivore level. The progressive decrease in available energy limits the length of food chains and shapes ecosystem structure.

Biomass Pyramid

A biomass pyramid shows the amount of living organic matter present at each trophic level in an ecosystem. It represents the biomass or total mass of organisms at each trophic level per unit area (1).

The biomass pyramid has a pyramidal shape with a large base that tapers to a pointed apex. This reflects the fact that the biomass at each successive trophic level decreases as energy is lost between transfers (2). The primary producers like plants and algae form the wide base of the pyramid as they utilize solar energy to produce biomass. At each higher trophic level, the biomass decreases as energy is lost to metabolic processes and inefficient energy transfers.

For example, in a grassland ecosystem, the primary producers are grasses and plants with large biomass. The primary consumers are grazing herbivores like deer with less biomass. The secondary consumers are carnivores like foxes with even lower biomass. And finally, tertiary consumers like hawks have the least biomass (3). Thus, the biomass pyramid for a grassland ecosystem has a wide base tapering to a pointed top.

Pyramid of Numbers

The pyramid of numbers represents the number of individual organisms at each trophic level in a food chain or web. It depicts the quantitative relationship between organisms at different trophic levels [1].

The pyramid of numbers has a typical pyramid shape, with a broad base at the producer level. The number of organisms at each successive trophic level decreases as we move up the pyramid. This is because energy is lost between trophic levels, so there must be more organisms at the lower levels to support the higher levels [2].

For example, in a grassland ecosystem, the producers are grass plants. There may be thousands of individual grass plants (first trophic level). The primary consumers feeding on the grass are grasshoppers. There may be hundreds of grasshoppers (second trophic level). The secondary consumers feeding on grasshoppers are frogs. There may be tens of frogs (third trophic level). At the top trophic level, there may only be a few hawks (fourth trophic level).

Pyramid of energy

The pyramid of energy is a model that represents the flow of energy through the trophic levels of an ecosystem. It shows how energy is passed on from one trophic level to the next, with energy being lost at each transfer.

The pyramid of energy demonstrates that energy decreases as it moves up through the trophic levels. The base of the pyramid represents the primary producers, such as plants, that make their own food and store energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. At the lowest trophic level, the greatest amount of energy is available.

At each successive trophic level up the pyramid, less energy is available. This is because when one organism eats another, not all of the energy from the food gets transferred to the organism eating it. Some energy is lost as heat during metabolic processes. Up to 90% of the energy can be lost between trophic levels.

The pyramid shape visually depicts this energy loss, with the base containing the most energy and the tip containing the least. The relative amounts of energy available at each trophic level are represented by the horizontal area of each level on the pyramid.

Due to these energy transfers and losses between trophic levels, there is less energy available for organisms at higher trophic levels. This limits how many individuals can be supported at the top carnivore trophic levels. The pyramid of energy illustrates why there are fewer organisms at higher trophic levels compared to lower levels.


Food chain vs food web

A food chain represents a linear transfer of energy and nutrients from one organism to another within an ecosystem. It follows a single path as each organism feeds on the one before it in the chain. For example, a simple food chain may consist of grass, a grasshopper that eats the grass, a frog that eats the grasshopper, and a snake that eats the frog. Energy is passed on from the producers (grass) through the various consumers at each trophic level.

In contrast, a food web consists of multiple interconnected food chains that represent all possible feeding relationships in an ecosystem. It depicts a network of complex, branching interactions as organisms feed on multiple possible food sources. For instance, the frog may eat other insects besides just the grasshopper, while the snake may consume small mammals or birds as well. A food web provides a more accurate and realistic model of energy flow within an ecosystem compared to a linear food chain.

Some key differences between food chains and food webs:

  • A food chain shows a single path of energy transfer while a food web shows multiple paths.
  • Food webs are a more accurate depiction of complex real-world ecosystems.
  • If one population in a food chain declines, it can cause disruption throughout the chain. Food webs have more flexibility due to multiple options.
  • Food chains are simpler to study and understand; food webs show comprehensive trophic interactions.

In summary, food chains provide a fundamental but oversimplified understanding of ecological communities. Studying food webs gives us a more complete picture of how populations are interlinked within an ecosystem.


Biomagnification is the increasing concentration of toxic substances such as pesticides and heavy metals in organisms at each trophic level, from the primary producers to the apex consumers. This occurs because toxic substances accumulate in the tissues of organisms and cannot be metabolized or excreted efficiently. The substances become more concentrated as they move up the food chain through consumption. Examples of toxins that concentrate up the food chain through biomagnification include methyl mercury, DDT and PCBs.

A classic example of biomagnification is DDT, a pesticide that was banned in many parts of the world. DDT becomes increasingly concentrated from producers to top predators through the food chain. Phytoplankton and algae take up trace amounts of DDT from water. Zooplankton that feed on phytoplankton accumulate larger amounts. Small fish eat many zooplankton, accumulating even higher levels. Larger fish prey on many smaller fish and have high concentrations of DDT. Apex predators like eagles, osprey and pelicans that exclusively eat fish accumulate extremely high levels that can reach toxic concentrations.

Biomagnification results in severe ecological damage, as predators at the top of the food chain suffer reduced fertility and birth defects from high exposures. Humans are also affected through consumption of fish and other animals. Biomagnification illustrates the significance of ecological pyramids in understanding movement of energy and toxins through ecosystems.

Ecological pyramids in different ecosystems

Ecological pyramids can vary significantly between different types of ecosystems and biomes. This is because the productivity and trophic structure of ecosystems can differ based on factors like climate, geography, and biodiversity.

For example, in the tundra biome, the pyramid of biomass may be inverted because the producer level has less biomass than the primary consumer level. This is due to the harsh climate limiting plant growth. In contrast, tropical rainforest pyramids tend to have a large base of producers since plant growth is abundant.

Marine food chains also demonstrate variations in ecological pyramids. Since there are multiple energy sources from photosynthetic and chemosynthetic organisms, the trophic levels can be complex. In hydrothermal vents, chemosynthetic bacteria form the producer base of the pyramid.

Overall, examining ecological pyramids across different ecosystems reveals key insights into how energy flows through nature. The pyramids provide a model for analyzing biomass, productivity, and trophic structure in diverse environments. Understanding these variations allows ecologists to better study community dynamics and ecosystem functions.

Importance of ecological pyramids

Ecological pyramids are important for understanding the basic structure of an ecosystem. They illustrate the relative amounts of biomass or productivity at each trophic level, giving us insight into how energy and biomass flow through the food chain or food web.

By studying ecological pyramids, ecologists can better understand the interdependencies between organisms at different trophic levels. For example, the pyramid of biomass shows how much biomass is available for the next trophic level to consume. A steep biomass pyramid suggests there is ample biomass at lower trophic levels to sustain organisms at higher levels.

Ecological pyramids also help us observe disturbances in food webs. If a trophic level experiences a significant loss of biomass or productivity, it will impact the levels above and below it. For instance, if many primary producers in an ecosystem die off, there will be less energy available to primary and secondary consumers. This can collapse or destabilize the food web.

Additionally, inverted pyramids, where biomass or productivity increases at higher trophic levels, can signal ecological imbalances or unsustainable energy flows in a food web. Studying pyramid structure helps ecologists identify unstable or disrupted ecosystems. [1]

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