What is an Energy Pyramid? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of an…
  • 0:40 Energy Transfers
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Mikell
When organisms eat other organisms, energy is transferred. An energy pyramid can be used to diagram this flow of metabolic energy. Here we will examine the definition of an energy pyramid, look at some examples, and finish with a brief quiz.

Definition of an Energy Pyramid

When we talk about the food chain or food web, we typically conjure to mind a lion chasing a gazelle, or perhaps a grazing cow. We imagine one organism being eaten by another and typically associate a large, carnivorous predator at the 'top' of the food chain. While this does show the ecological relationships between organisms, it doesn't exactly show the flow of energy through the ecosystem.

This is where an energy pyramid (sometimes called a trophic pyramid or ecological pyramid) is useful in quantifying the energy transfer from one organism to another along the food chain. Energy decreases as you move through the trophic levels from the bottom to the top of the pyramid.

Trophic Levels of an Energy Pyramid
Energy Pyramid

Energy Transfers

So, we have outlined that an energy pyramid diagrams a transfer of energy through the food chain, but what exactly is this 'energy' we are describing and where does it come from? The whole reason why organisms must eat is to obtain this metabolic energy, vital for their ability to function.

  1. The energy starts with the sun!
  2. Plants produce metabolic energy via photosynthesis, wherein approximately 10% of their energy is stored in their tissues, available for consumption by a grazing herbivore. The rest of the solar energy was used by the plant in its own metabolism, lost as heat or lost as waste.
  3. Of that 10% that an herbivore eats, only 10% of that is stored in its tissues to be eaten by a carnivore. Just like the plant, the other 90% of its metabolic energy is used up by the herbivore in functioning, excreting waste, and heat loss.
  4. This continues up the pyramid with each subsequent carnivore only inheriting 10% of the previous level's energy.
  5. By the time that the original solar energy hits the top of the pyramid, as little as 0.1% of the energy is consumed by the top predator; the rest is lost to metabolic activities.
  6. Decomposers, such as bacteria, worms, and fungi, obtain the little amount of energy remaining in the tissues of dead plants and animals.

The 10% rule states that about 90% of energy from food is used for bodily processes or lost as heat, leaving 10% of the original energy available to feed the next consumer.

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