Types of Matter & Energy Changes in an Ecosystem

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Ecosystems are a constant flow of matter and energy from one place to another. In this lesson, we will discuss some of the important energy and matter cycles that take place within and between ecosystems.

What is an Ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a group of living organisms interacting with one another and with their environment. That environment can include soil, air, water, and weather systems. Ecosystems can be simple and sparsely populated or complex and full of life. Some of the most densely packed and varied ecosystems in the world are places like rainforests and underwater coral reefs.

Coral reefs have been described as the rainforests of the sea because of how complex their ecosystems are
Coral reefs have been described as the rainforests of the sea because of how complex their ecosystems are

But the truth is that ecosystems are mostly an area where there are lots of complex flows of matter and energy. Matter is the physical stuff that the universe is made out of; the things that you can touch and weigh on a scale. Matter takes up space. This includes gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide. Energy is hard to define, but it could be described as the resources necessary to do any kind of physical work, including changing its form. The faster you throw a ball, the more energy it has. And the hotter a cup of tea, the more energy it has.

It turns out that according to physics, matter and energy are really the same thing in different forms. Matter can turn into energy, and energy can turn into matter. So when matter enters a system, that system has also gained energy.

Now let's look at the specifics of how matter and energy flows into, out of, and within ecosystems.

Matter and Energy in Ecosystems

Energy Changes & Flow

Energy is a big part of how lifeforms - both plants and animals - live. The energy we use to move our bodies and keep our organs functioning comes from the food we eat and the air that we breathe. We bring energy into our bodies, and use it to live. Take those resources away and we wouldn't survive long at all.

Just like humans, ecosystems have inputs and outputs of energy. If we look at a plant, that plant lives because of a process called photosynthesis. In that process, a plant turns light energy from the sun into glucose sugar -- a material that powers the cells of the plant. Without photosynthesis, plants wouldn't get the energy they need to live.

That energy then passes along the food chain. Animals eat the plants, and animals eat other animals, causing the energy to pass from one life form to another. All of the energy that drives life on earth originates from the sun - without sunlight we couldn't exist.

Matter Changes & Flow

We've already talked about photosynthesis, where plants turn light energy into glucose. But that glucose is made of more than pure energy -- it contains matter. Photosynthesis requires light energy, carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide is absorbed on the underside of leaves. And the water is absorbed through the roots. Carbon dioxide and water are examples of matter, and that matter is reformed into glucose through complex chemical reactions.

The matter that forms this glucose passes down the food chain in the same way that energy does -- from animal to animal as they eat one another. These are the building blocks from which humans and other animals are made.

A food web shows how energy and matter moves inside of ecosystems
A food web shows how energy and matter moves inside of ecosystems

Aside from passing on glucose, plants have other outputs of matter. The main waste product of photosynthesis is oxygen, which plants release. That's why rainforests are often described as the lungs of the world. Plants also pass on material when they drop their leaves in the autumn, or die and fall to the forest floor.

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