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11.4: Food Chains and Food Webs

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  • 11.4.1 Trophic Levels

    A food chain follows one path of energy and materials between species. A food web is more complex and is a whole system of connected food chains. In a food web, organisms are placed into different trophic levels. Trophic levels include different categories of organisms such as producers, consumers, and decomposers. Producers are the basic trophic level while top predators are the peak level. Producers are autotrophs, meaning they produce their own food through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis . Consumers are animals that eat producers and are split into many different categories: primary consumers, secondary consumers, tertiary consumers, and more. Primary consumers are herbivores that eat plants. Secondary consumers eat the herbivores. Tertiary consumers eat a variation of the primary and secondary consumers. There may be more levels of consumers until eventually the top predator is reached. The relationship between trophic levels (e.g. primary producers, herbivores, primary predators, and top predators) is shown in Figure 1. It is important to note that consumers can be carnivores, animals that eat other animals, and also omnivores, animals that consume many types of food. Decomposers are also part of the food web and include organisms that feed on all varieties of dead plants and animals.

    Figure 1 Diagram shows the hierarchy of consumption with the each tier consuming species from the tier below them. The tapering of the pyramid indicates the highest quantity of biomass and energy located in the producers tier and the lowest quantities located in the top predator tier.

    11.4.2 Energy Transfer

    The amount of energy that flows through the different trophic levels of a food web is usually displayed as a pyramid (see above). This pyramid is seen as a diagram for the hierarchy between predator and prey, but it displays far more information. The amount of area in each trophic level displays the amount of energy present in the biomass. It is evident that producers occupy the largest area on the pyramid, and in turn the largest amount of energy. Autotrophs convert solar and chemical energy into the biologically usable form, glucose. Glucose is how energy is introduced into the food web system and how energy is transferred through consumption. Since autotrophs are the source of energy into the food web it makes sense that they contain the highest quantity of energy within their biomass. Although the individual primary producer is tiny, the vast number of producers results in their combined biomass being the largest in the ocean. The combination of their vast biomass and retention of much of the energy they produce is what leads producers to occupy such a wide base of the energy pyramid. As you move up the trophic levels the amount of energy gained from consumption decreases by a factor of approximately 10 per level. This means that primary consumers only receive 10% of the energy from primary producers when consumed. The most shocking is that the apex predator in the example above represents quaternary predator and therefore only receives .01% of the energy that was produced by the original primary producer. Energy gets trapped in unusable forms (ex. fiber and bone) and is used in metabolizing material into useable forms, leading to an overall loss.

    Figure 2: This figure illustrates the difference between a food chain and a food web. A food web depicts the complexity of interactions in a natural ecosystem . A food chain simplifies the interactions between selected organisms and can be used to better understand how changes in the populations of one species can affect the community as a whole.

    11.4.3 Food Chains vs. Food Webs

    When you examine a food web, you can observe how all the food chains interact in one community. When observing a single food chain, you can see the path in which energy and nutrients gets passed along through the community. Since a food chain is much more simplistic than a food web, they can be used to predict changes in an ecosystem due to changes in population of a single species. Trophic cascades are one way in which a food chain can be used to predict changes in an ecosystem. A trophic cascade occurs when one species of organism has a change in population size, resulting in changes in populations of other species within the food chain. If populations of small sharks were devastated, we would expect through trophic cascades that sunfish populations that they feed on would rise, zooplankton populations that sunfish population feed on would fall, and phytoplankton populations that zooplankton feed on would rise. The use of food webs to predict changes in ecosystems through trophic cascades is essential to understand the full effects of humans on the natural world. Food webs are more complex than food chains but equally as useful in understanding the processes of ecological communities. Some food webs may be more complex than others but the concepts are always constant. A food web shows the flow of nutrients between different types of organisms. Food webs begin with autotrophs and continue with heterotrophs, but due to their codependence, changes in one type of organism affects the other. For example, if the amount of phytoplankton were to suddenly decline dramatically, so would the number heterotrophs that depend on the phytoplankton as a food source(known as 'bottom up' control of food webs).

    11.4.4 Types of Webs

    In the ecological community two types of food webs- connectance webs and interaction webs- are used to track the energy that flows within a community. Connectance webs use arrows that show the consumption of one species by another. These arrows are all of equal weight so there is no additional information about the strength of consumption between species (Atkinson et al. 2014). Interaction webs also use arrows to show the consumption of one species by another, but these arrows are weighted according to the interaction strength in the community. If one species is seen to regularly consume another then it will have a wide and dark arrow showing their connection. If it is observed that a species rarely consumes another then the connecting arrow will be very slim if present at all (Berlow et al. 2004).

    Figure 3: This figure revisits the idea of trophic cascades with an increase in orca populations causing an increase in urchin populations and a decrease in sea otter and kelp populations. This image also illustrates a foundation species and keystone species within the same food chain.

    11.4.5 Foundation Species and Keystone Species

    There are also organisms in a food web that are known as keystone species as well as foundation species. Foundation species tend to be primary producers and play a large role in the community due to their ability to build or provide structure that other organisms inhabit (for example, mussels and kelp forests). Keystone species can be located anywhere in the food web and also play a vital role in the maintenance of the community. Keystone species are defined as those that have a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem relative to their abundance. Sea otters do not have a very high biomass in a kelp forest but through predation of other species (such as sea urchins), they have a strong impact on the health and biomass of the kelp.

    11.4.6 Bioaccumulation

    Food webs are also useful in understanding the concept of bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation is the accumulation of pollutants in the top tiers of a food web resulting in dangerously high concentrations in apex predators. Bioaccumulation occurs because pollutants are transferred through consumption and are retained within the tissues of organisms. As a top predator consumes other species for sustenance it is inadvertently amassing large concentrations of pollutants within its body. This process has resulted in the decline of many high trophic level bird species due to the accumulation of the pesticide DDT.


    1. Atkinson, A., S. Hill, M. Barange, E. Pakhomov, D. Raubenheimer, K. Schmidt, S. Simpson, and C. Reiss. 2014. Sardine cycles, krill declines, and locust plagues: revisiting ‘wasp-waist’ food webs. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29: 309-316.
    2. Berlow, E., A. Neutel, J. Cohen, P. de Ruiter, B. Ebenman, M. Emmerson, J. Fox, V. Jansen, J. Iwan Jones, G. Kokkoris, D. Logofet, A. McKane, J. Montoya, and O. Petchey. 2004. Interaction strengths in food webs: issues and opportunities. Journal of Animal Ecology 73: 585-598.
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    6. http://education.nationalgeographic....od-web/?ar_a=1