In scientific terms, a food chain is a chronological pathway or an order that shows the flow of energy from one organism to the other. In a community which has producers, consumers, and decomposers, the energy flows in a specific pathway. Energy is not created or destroyed. But it flows from one level to the other, through different organisms.
A food chain shows a single pathway from the producers to the consumers and how the energy flows in this pathway. In the animal kingdom, food travels around different levels. To understand a food chain better, let us take a look at the terrestrial ecosystem.
Food chain in a Terrestrial Ecosystem
The sun is the source of energy, which is the initial energy source. This is used by the producers or plants to create their own food, through photosynthesis and grow. Next in this chain is another organism, which is the consumer that eats this food, taking up that energy.
The primary consumers are the organisms that consume the primary producers. In a terrestrial ecosystem, it could be a herbivore like a cow or a goat or it could even be a man. When a goat is consumed by man, he becomes the secondary consumer.
Many interconnected food chains make up a food web. When you look at the larger picture, a food web shows a realistic representation of the energy flow through different organisms in an ecosystem.
Sometimes, a single organism gets eaten by many predators or it eats many other organisms. This is when a food chain doesn’t represent the energy flow in a proper manner because there are many trophic levels that interconnect. This is where a food web comes into place. It shows the interactions between different organisms in an ecosystem.
It is a graphic representation of the relationship between organisms at various trophic levels in a food chain. The basis of an ecological pyramid is the biomass, energy, and number. Just as the name suggests ecological pyramids are in the shape of a pyramid. The concept was first introduced by Charles Elton, the pioneer British Ecologist.
The bottom of an ecological pyramid is the broadest and is occupied the producers, which form the first trophic level. Producers are at the lowest level. Just as in a food chain, the producers are consumed by the primary consumers, in an ecological pyramid; the next level is occupied by the primary consumers. The next level of the pyramid is occupied by the secondary consumers and the last, by the tertiary consumers.
Types of Ecological Pyramids
Depending on the factors that we use to represent an ecological pyramid, there are three types. They are:
Pyramid of numbers: Here the factor that is taken into account is the number of organisms in each trophic level. As we go up the levels of the pyramid, the number of organisms decreases. The producers form the largest number and hence are at the bottom of the pyramid.
Pyramid of energy: This is an upright pyramid that represents the flow of energy from the producers to the final consumers.
Pyramid of biomass: This pyramid represents the amount of biomass of the organisms present at each trophic level. Biomass is nothing but the weight of the organisms.
In general, all ecological pyramids are upright, except in certain cases. For example, in a detritus food chain, the pyramid of numbers is not upright because many organisms feed on one dead plant or animal. The pyramid of biomass in an ocean is also inverted. But a point of note is that the pyramid of energy is always upright as the flow of energy is unidirectional.