Ecosystems - How it works

The Biosphere

Earth itself could be considered a massive ecosystem, in which the living and nonliving worlds interact through four major subsystems: the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all the planet's waters, except for moisture in the atmosphere), geosphere (the soil and the extreme upper portion of the continental crust), and biosphere. The biosphere includes all living things: plants (from algae and lichen to shrubs and trees), mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, insects, and all manner of microscopic forms, including bacteria and viruses. In addition, the biosphere draws together all formerly living things that have not yet decomposed.

Several characteristics unite the biosphere. One is the obvious fact that everything in it is either living or recently living. Then there are the food webs that connect organisms on the basis of energy flow from one species to another. A food web is similar to the more familiar concept food chain, but in scientific terms a food chain—a series of singular organisms in which each plant or animal depends on the organism that precedes or follows it—does not exist. Instead, the feeding relationships between organisms in the real world are much more complex and are best described as a web rather than a chain.

Food Webs

Food webs are built around the flow of energy between organisms, known as energy transfer, which begins with plant life. Plants absorb energy in two ways. From the Sun, they receive electromagnetic energy in the form of visible light and invisible infrared waves, which they convert to chemical energy through a process known as photosynthesis. In addition, plants take in nutrients from the soil, which contain energy in the forms of various chemical compounds. These compounds may be organic, which typically means that they came from living things, though, in fact, the term organic refers strictly to characteristic carbon-based chemical structures. Plants also receive inorganic compounds from minerals in the soil. (See Minerals. For more about the role of carbon in inorganic compounds, see Carbon Cycle.)

Contained in these minerals are six chemical elements essential to the sustenance of life on planet Earth: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. These are the elements involved in biogeochemical cycles, through which they continually are circulated between the living and nonliving worlds—that is, between organisms, on the one hand, and the inorganic realms of rocks, minerals, water, and air, on the other (see Biogeochemical Cycles).


As plants take up nutrients from the soil, they convert them into other forms, which provide usable energy to organisms who eat the plants. (An example of this conversion process is cellular respiration, discussed in Carbon Cycle.) When an herbivore, or plant-eating organism, eats the plant, it incorporates this energy.

Chances are strong that the herbivore will be eaten either by a carnivore, a meat-eating organism, or by an omnivore, an organism that consumes both herbs and herbivores—that is, both plants and animals. Few animals consume carnivores or omnivores, at least by hunting and killing them. (Detritivores and decomposers, which we discuss presently, consume the remains of all creatures, including carnivores and omnivores.) Humans are an example of omnivores, but they are far from the only omnivorous creatures. Many bird species, for instance, are omnivorous.

As nutrients pass from plant to herbivore to carnivore, the total amount of energy in them decreases. This is dictated by the second law of thermodynamics (see Energy and Earth), which shows that energy transfers cannot be perfectly efficient. Energy is not "lost"—the total amount of energy in the universe remains fixed, though it may vary with a particular system, such as an individual ecosystem—but it is dissipated, or directed into areas that do not aid in the transfer of energy between organisms. What this means for the food web is that each successive level contains less energy than the levels that precede it.


In the case of a food web, something interesting happens with regard to energy efficiency as soon as we pass beyond carnivores and omnivores to the next level. It might seem at first that there could be no level beyond carnivores or omnivores, since they appear to be "at the top of the food chain," but this only illustrates why the idea of a food web is much more useful. After carnivores and omnivores, which include some of the largest, most powerful, and most intelligent creatures, come the lowliest of all organisms: decomposers and detritivores, an integral part of the food web.

Decomposers, which include bacteria and fungi, obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. Detritivores perform a similar function: by feeding on waste matter, they break organic material down into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. The principal difference between detritivores and decomposers is that the former are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.

Both decomposers and detritivores aid in decomposition, a chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. Often an element such as nitrogen appears in forms that are not readily usable by organisms, and therefore such elements (which may appear individually or in compounds) need to be chemically processed through the body of a decomposer or detritivore. This processing involves chemical reactions in which the substance—whether an element or compound—is transformed into a more usable version.

By processing chemical compounds from the air, water, and geosphere, decomposers and detritivores deposit nutrients in the soil. These creatures feed on plant life, thus making possible the cycle we have described. Clearly this system, of which we have sketched only the most basic outlines, is an extraordinarily complex and well-organized one, in which every organism plays a specific role. In fact, earth scientists working in the realm of biosphere studies use the term niche to describe the role that a particular organism plays in its community. (For more about the interaction of species in a biological community, see Ecology and Ecological Stress.)

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