Science Courses / Course / Chapter

Three Types of Ecological Pyramids: Number, Biomass, & Energy

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

Explore the types of ecological pyramids, which organize the types of organisms in an ecosystem. Discover the characteristics of number pyramids, biomass pyramids, and energy pyramids, as well as why each type is significant to biologists. Updated: 12/13/2021

What Is an Ecological Pyramid?

When you think of a pyramid, you'd probably think of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Or maybe a human pyramid of cheerleaders comes to mind. Although these aren't quite the same as an ecological pyramid, the basic concept is there: pyramids generally have a larger base, with levels that decrease in size as you move towards the top. Instead of humans or stone, ecological pyramids are made of different organisms in an ecosystem.

Every ecosystem can be broken down into trophic levels. Each organism in an ecosystem can be categorized into one of these levels based on how it gets its energy, or food. Producers are organisms that make their own food, usually via sunlight, and supply energy for the whole ecosystem. Since these form the energy base for all other life, we always put them on the bottom of an ecological pyramid. Primary consumers, the next level on the pyramid, are any organism that eats only producers. Secondary consumers are carnivores and eat primary consumers. Lastly, tertiary consumers feed on both primary and secondary consumers. These guys are at the top of the food chain and thus are shown at the top of the ecological pyramid.

Trophic levels
trophic levels

There are three ways we can represent the trophic levels in an ecological pyramid: the amount of organisms (number), the mass of all the organisms in each level (biomass), or the amount of energy contained in each level. Let's look at each of these pyramids in detail.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: What Is Succession in Biology? - Definition & Examples

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:02 What is an Ecological Pyramid?
  • 1:34 Number Pyrmaids
  • 3:16 Biomass Pyramids
  • 4:33 Energy Pyramid
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Number Pyramids

Number pyramids are ecological pyramids that show the actual number of organisms in the environment. Usually there are the most producers, since they supply energy for the rest of the pyramid. As we move up in trophic level, the number of organisms usually decreases. This is because less energy is available to the next level from the previous. In fact, this is known as the 10% rule in biology, which says each trophic level only gets 10% of the energy of the level below it.

For example, when plants absorb energy from the sun, they get 100%, or all of that energy. But they have to spend some to live, grow and reproduce. So when a caterpillar eats the plant, they can only get, at most, 10% of the energy the plant originally received from the sun.

This continues upwards, so the amount of energy available at each trophic level decreases. Normally, if there is less energy, there are less organisms able to be supported. For example, in the grasslands of Mid-West America, the grass has immense numbers. Primary consumers such as bison and rabbits are much less numerous, so a corresponding number pyramid would take on a traditional look.

However, there are ecosystems that do not look like this. If the producers are very large and take up a lot of space, there may be fewer total than tiny primary consumers that would multiply very quickly. For instance, in Yosemite National Park, the giant sequoia trees can grow over 200 feet tall. One tree easily supports thousands of primary consumers in the form of caterpillars, flies, and other insects. So the pyramid may be inverted depending on the particular ecosystem.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Resources created by teachers for teachers

Over 30,000 video lessons & teaching resources‐all in one place.
Video lessons
Quizzes & Worksheets
Classroom Integration
Lesson Plans

I would definitely recommend to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.
Jennifer B.
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account