Energy Flux in Food Webs

The fundamental source of energy in almost all ecosystems is radiant energy from the sun; energy and organic matter are passed along an ecosystem's food chain. Organisms are classified based upon the number of energy transfers through a food web (see illustration). Photoautotrophic production of organic matter represents the first energy transfer in ecosystems and is classified as primary production. Consumption of a plant by a herbivore is the second energy transfer, and thus herbivores occupy the second trophic level, also known as secondary production. Consumer organisms that are one, two, or three transfers from autotrophs are classified as primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers. Moving through a food web, energy is lost during each transfer as heat, as described by the second law of thermodynamics. Consequently, the total number of energy transfers rarely exceeds four or five; with energy loss during each transfer, little energy is available to support organisms at the highest levels of a food web.