ECOSYSTEM : STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION

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1 ECOSYSTEM : STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION Environment The term environment denotes all the physical, chemical and biotic conditions surrounding and influencing a living organism. Favourable environmental conditions are required to sustain life on earth. The environment can be divided into two main components 1. Abiotic : All the physical (climatic), edaphic (nature of soil) and chemical factors. They are also called nonliving factors. The important abiotic factors are temperature, light, pressure, humidity, precipitation, wind, mineral elements of soil and composition of air. Some of these environmental factors serve as resources (air, soil and water) while others act as regulatory factors (light, temperature and pressure etc). 2. Biotic : All living organisms found in the environment and that includes plants, animals and microorganisms. COMPONENTS OF THE ENVIRONMENT The environment has two basic components (A) Abiotic (B) Biotic (A) Abiotic Components (Nonliving) : They can be classified into following two categories 1. Physical components : They are the various climatic characteristics such as light, temperature, humidity precipitation, pressure and soil profile. These factors sustain and control the growth of organisms in an ecosystem. Deficiency or excess of any one of these is harmful for their growth. 2. Chemical components (a) Inorganic components : Substances such as carbon, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus sulphur, zinc, water and many other minerals are the inorganic nutrients required by all living beings. They may be classified into the micronutrients and macronutrients.. The essential inorganic elements such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium which are required in large quantities are called macronutrients. The essential elements required in small amounts are the micronutrients e.g. zinc, boron and magnesium. Sources of all nutrients for plants are air, water and soil. All these nutrients are converted into the living biomass by the plants. (b) Organic components : The complex molecules such as carbohydrates, proteins and lipids are the organic substances in an ecosystem. These substances when outside the organism make the abiotic component but in the living organism they make an important component of the biomass. They make a link between the biotic and abiotic components. (B) Biotic Components (living) The living organisms form the biotic component of the environment. All the living things require energy for their life processes and material for formation and maintenance of their body structure. Food meets both these requirements. The biotic components can be classified as producers, consumers and decomposers. 1. Producers : Only plants are capable of capturing solar energy and transforming it into food energy for all the other living organisms. Therefore, they are called as producers. These plants are also named as autotrophs since they make their own food. 2. Consumers : Animals depend upon the plants directly or indirectly for their food and are called consumers. Their mode of nutrition is called heterotrophic. Consumers can be herbivores, carnivorous, omnivorous, parasitic or scavengers as described later in this lesson. 3. Decomposers : They feed on dead and decaying animals and plants. They are small microscopic organisms and help in recycling of nutrients in the environment. Food Chain Transfer of food from the plants (producers) through a series of organisms with repeated eating and being eaten is called a food chain e.g. 1

2 Grasses --- Grasshopper --- Frogs --- Snakes --- Hawk/Eagle Each step in the food chain is called trophic level. In the above example grasses are first and eagle represents the fifth trophic level. 2. Some more examples of food chain are given in Fig Fig Some examples of food chain. Three important features that you can note in these chains are : Weaker organisms are attacked by the stronger organisms Number of organisms is reduced at each higher level but the size of organisms is increases. The number of steps in a food chain is limited to 4-5. A. A food chain consists of the following trophic levels : (i) (Producers) Autotrophs : They produce food for all other organisms of the ecosystem. Autotrophs represent the first trophic level. They are largely green plants they convert inorganic substances by the process of photosynthesis into food (organic molecules) in the presence of sun light. The total rate at which the radiant energy is stored by the process of photosynthesis in the green plants is called Gross Primary Productivity (GPP). This is also known as total photosynthesis. A part of the gross primary productivity is utilized by the plants for their own metabolism, maintenance and reproduction. Energy required for all these functions is produced by the process of respiration. The remaining is stored by them as Net Primary Productivity (NPP) and is available to the heterotrophs or consumers (the next trophic level). GPP = NPP + R or GPP R = NPP Productivity in the biological system is a continuous process but it is different in different ecosystems. (ii) Primary consumers Herbivores : These are animals which feed directly on the plants. They are first level consumers and therefore they are also known as primary consumers and make the second trophic level in the food chain e.g. grasshopper in the above example. Other examples are insects, birds, rodents and ruminants. Herbivores are capable of converting energy stored in the plant tissue into animal tissue and therefore they are also known as key industry. They can digest high cellulose diet. (iii) Secondary consumer Carnivores : Carnivores are the animals that feed on other animals or its tissues. Therefore they are secondary, tertiary or quaternary level consumers. Frog is secondary level consumers as it feeds on herbivorous grasshopper. Snake is tertiary 2

3 level consumer since it consumes other carnivore that is frog. Frog, snake, dog, cat and tiger are all carnivores. Generally the size of the carnivore/ increases at each trophic level. (iv) Decomposers : They make up the final trophic level in a food chain. Decomposers are the organisms that feed on dead organic matter called detritus of all the trophic levels and help in recycling the nutrients. They can be grouped into two classes: microdecomposers and macrodecomposers. Microdecomposers are very small microscopic organisms like bacteria, fungi, and protozoans. Macrodecomposers are large but less in number. They are visible to the naked eye e.g. springtails, mites, millipedes, earthworms, nematodes, slugs, crabs and molluscs. Special feeding groups (Consumers) (i) Scavengers : These are the animals that feed on the dead plants and animals. e.g. termites and beetles feed on the decaying wood, and many marine invertebrates. Vultures, gulls and hyena are other examples of scavengers. (ii) Omnivores : Omnivores consume both plants and animals as source of their food e.g. human beings. Some of the omnivores like the red fox feeds on berries small rodents as well as on dead animals. Thus it is a herbivore, carnivore and also a scavenger. (iii) Parasites : They live and feed on/in other living organisms called host. Parasites not only feed on their host but they also cause lethal or nonlethal disease in it. B. Position of human beings in the food chain ; Human beings are consumers and may occupy Primary, secondary or tertiary levels. Vegetarian people are primary consumers; when they consume small fish chicken or goat meat they are secondary consumers and when they consume big fishes they are tertiary consumers. Trophic Levels Photosynthesis is the base of the energy economy of all but a few special ecosystems, and ecosystem dynamics are based on how organisms share food resources. In fact, one of the major properties of an ecosystem is its productivity, the amount of biomass (biological material) produced in a given area during a given period of time. Photosynthesis is described as primary productivity because it is the basis for almost all other growth in an ecosystem. Manufacture of biomass by organisms that eat plants is termed secondary productivity. A given ecosystem may have very high total productivity, but if decomposers decompose organic material as rapidly as it is formed, the net primary productivity will be low. Think about what you have eaten today and trace it back to its photosynthetic source. If you have eaten an egg, you can trace it back to a chicken, which ate corn. This is an example of a food chain, a linked feeding series. Now think about a more complex food chain involving you, a chicken, a corn plant, and a grasshopper. The chicken could eat grasshoppers that had eaten leaves of the corn plant. You also could eat the grasshopper directly-some humans do. Or you could eat corn yourself, making the shortest possible food chain. Humans have several options of where we fit into food chains. In ecosystems, some consumers feed on a single species, but most consumers have multiple food sources. Similarly, some species are prey to a single kind of predator, but many species in an ecosystem are beset by several types of predators and parasites. In this way, individual food chains become interconnected to form a food web. Figure 3.11 shows feeding relationships among some of the larger organisms in a woodland and lake community. In nature the food chains are not isolated sequences but they are interconnected with one another. A net work of food chains which are interconnected at various trophic levels of the food chain to form a number of feeding connections is called a food web. In a food web one trophic level may be connected to more than one food chain. A snake can feed on frog or rat or any other small rodent. 3

4 An organism's feeding status in an ecosystem can be expressed as its trophic level (from the Greek trophe, food). In our first example, the corn plant is at the producer level; it transforms solar energy into chemical energy, producing food molecules. Other organisms in the ecosystem are consumers of the chemical energy harnessed by the producers. An organism that eats producers is a primary consumer. An organism that eats primary consumers is a secondary consumer, which may, in turn, be eaten by a tertiary consumer, and so on. Most terrestrial food chains are relatively short (seeds--mouse--owl), but aquatic food chains may be quite long (microscopic algae--copepod--minnow-- crayfish--bass-- osprey). The length of a food chain also may reflect the physical characteristics of a particular ecosystem. A harsh arctic landscape has a much shorter food chain than a temperate or tropical one. Organisms can be identified both by the trophic level at which they feed and by the kinds of food they eat (fig. 3.13). Herbivores are plant eaters, carnivores are flesh eaters, and omnivores eat both plant and animal matter. What are humans? We are natural omnivores, by history and by habit. Tooth structure is an important clue to understanding animal food preferences, and humans are no exception. Our teeth are suited for an omnivorous diet, with a combination of cutting and crushing surfaces that are not highly adapted for one specific kind of food, as are the teeth of a wolf (carnivore) or a horse (herbivore). One of the most important trophic levels is occupied by the many kinds of organisms that remove and recycle the dead bodies and waste products of others. Scavengers such as crows, jackals, and vultures clean up dead carcasses of larger animals. Detritivores such as ants and beetles consume litter, debris, and dung, while decomposer organisms such as fungi and bacteria complete the final breakdown and recycling of organic materials. It could be argued that these microorganisms are second in importance only to producers, because without their activity nutrients would remain locked up in the organic compounds of dead organisms and discarded body wastes, rather than being made available to successive generations of organisms. Ecological pyramids If we arrange the organisms in a food chain according to trophic levels, they often form a pyramid with a broad base representing primary producers and only a few individuals in the highest trophic levels. This pyramid arrangement is especially true if we look at the energy content of an ecosystem (fig. 3.14). True to the second principle of thermodynamics, less food energy is available to the top trophic level than is available to preceding levels. For example, it takes a huge number of plants to support a modest colony of grazers such as prairie dogs. Several colonies of prairie dogs, in turn, might be required to feed a single coyote. And a very large top carnivore like a tiger may need a home range of hundreds of square kilometers to survive. Why is there so much less energy in each successive level in this figure? In the first place, some of the food that organisms eat is undigested and doesn't provide usable energy. Much of the energy that is absorbed is used in the daily processes of living or lost as heat when it is transformed from one form to another and thus isn't stored as biomass that can be eaten. Furthermore, predators don't operate at 100 percent efficiency. If there were enough foxes to catch all the rabbits available in the summer when the supply is abundant, there would be too many foxes in the middle of the winter when rabbits are scarce. A general rule of thumb is that only about 10 percent of the energy in one consumer level is represented in the next higher level (fig. 3.15). The amount of energy available is often expressed in biomass. For example, it generally takes about 100 kg of clover to make 10 kg of rabbit and 10 kg of rabbit to make 1 kg of fox. The total number of organisms and the total amount of biomass in each successive trophic level of an ecosystem also may form pyramids (fig. 3.16) similar to those describing energy content. The relationship between biomass and numbers is not as dependable as energy, however. The biomass pyramid, for instance, can be 4

5 Env & Eco - AGupta inverted by periodic fluctuations in producer populations (for example, low plant and algal biomass present during winter in temperate aquatic ecosystems). The numbers pyramid also can be inverted. One coyote can support numerous tapeworms, for example. Numbers inversion also occurs at the lower trophic levels (for example, one large tree can support thousands of caterpillars). How many trophic levels are there? Usually, there are no more than three or four in terrestrial ecosystems and sometimes five in marine systems. This answer comes from straightforward observations. The biomass, or total combined (net dry) weight (often, per unit area or volume), of all the organisms at each trophic level can be estimated by collecting (or trapping) and weighing suitable samples. In terrestrial ecosystems, the biomass is roughly 90% less at each higher trophic level. For example, if the biomass of producers in a grassland is 1 ton (2,000 lb) per acre, the biomass of herbivores will be about 200 pounds per acre, and that of primary carnivores will be about 20 pounds per acre. At this rate, you can't go through very many trophic levels before the biomass approaches zero. Depicting these relationships graphically gives rise to what is commonly called a biomass pyramid. The biomass decreases so much at each trophic level for three reasons. First, much of the food that is consumed by a heterotroph is not converted to the body tissues of the heterotroph; rather, it is broken down, and the stored energy it contains is released and used by the heterotroph. Second, much of the biomass-especially at the producer level is never eaten by herbivores and goes directly to the decomposers. Third, carnivores that eat carnivores as prey must be larger than their prey, and there are limits to the size and distribution of ever-larger carnivores roaming over an ever-larger area. As organic matter is broken down, its chemical elements are released back to the environment, where, in the inorganic state, they may be reabsorbed by autotrophs (producers). Thus, a continuous cycle of nutrients is sustained, from the environment through organisms and back to the environment. As organisms eat other organisms, they expend energy to grow and reproduce, and their numbers as species are sustained. The spent energy, on the other hand, is lost as heat given off from bodies. In sum, all food chains, food webs, and trophic levels must start with producers, and producers must have suitable environmental conditions to support their growth. Populations of all heterotrophs, including humans, are ultimately limited by what plants produce, in accordance with the concept of the biomass pyramid. Should any factor cause the productive capacity of green plants to be diminished, all other organisms at higher trophic levels will be diminished accordingly. 5

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