Environmental Studies - Ecological Pyramid


Ecological Pyramid refers to a graphical (pyramidal) representation to show the number of organisms, biomass, and productivity at each trophic level. It is also known as Energy Pyramid. There are three types of pyramids. They are as follows −

Pyramid of Biomass

As the name suggests, the Biomass Pyramids show the amount of biomass (living or organic matter present in an organism) present per unit area at each trophic level. It is drawn with the producers at the base and the top carnivores at the tip.

Pyramid of biomass is generally ascertained by gathering all organisms occupying each trophic level separately and measuring their dry weight. Each trophic level has a certain mass of living material at a particular time called standing crop, which is measured as the mass of living organisms (biomass) or the number in a unit area.

Upright Pyramid of Biomass

Ecosystems found on land mostly have pyramids of biomass with large base of primary producers with smaller trophic level perched on top, hence the upright pyramid of biomass.

Energy Pyramid

The biomass of autotrophs or producers is at the maximum. The biomass of next trophic level, i.e. primary consumers is less than the producers. Similarly, the other consumers such as secondary and tertiary consumers are comparatively less than its lower level respectively. The top of the pyramid has very less amount of biomass.

Inverted Pyramid of Biomass

On the other hand, a reverse pyramidal structure is found in most aquatic ecosystems. Here, the pyramid of biomass may assume an inverted pattern. However, pyramid of numbers for aquatic ecosystem is upright.

In a water body, the producers are tiny phytoplankton that grow and reproduce rapidly. In this condition, the pyramid of biomass has a small base, with the producer biomass at the base providing support to consumer biomass of large weight. Hence, it assumes an inverted shape.

Inverted Pyramid

Pyramid of Numbers

It is the graphic representation of number of individuals per unit area of various trophic levels. Large number of producers tend to form the base whereas lower number of top predators or carnivores occupy the tip. The shape of the pyramid of numbers varies from ecosystem to ecosystem.

For example, in an aquatic ecosystem or grassland areas, autotrophs or producers are present in large number per unit area. The producers support a lesser number of herbivores, which in turn supports fewer carnivores.

Upright Pyramid of Numbers

In upright pyramid of numbers, the number of individuals decreases from the lower level to the higher level. This type of pyramid is usually found in the grassland ecosystem and the pond ecosystem. The grass in a grassland ecosystem occupies the lowest trophic level because of its abundance.

Upright Pyramid

Next comes the primary producers – the herbivores (for example – grasshopper). The number of grasshoppers is quite less than that of grass. Then, there are the primary carnivores, for example, the rat whose number is far less than the grasshoppers. The next trophic level is the secondary consumers such as the snakes who feed on the rats. Then, there are the top carnivores such as the hawks who eat snakes and whose number is less than the snakes.

The number of species decreases towards the higher levels in this pyramidal structure.

Inverted Pyramid of Numbers

Here, the number of individuals increase from the lower level to the higher trophic level. For example, the tree ecosystem.

Pyramid of Energy

It is a graphical structure representing the flow of energy through each trophic level of a food chain over a fixed part of the natural environment. An energy pyramid represents the amount of energy at each trophic level and loss of energy at each is transferred to another trophic level.

Energy pyramid, sometimes called trophic pyramid or ecological pyramid, is useful in quantifying the energy transfer from one organism to another along the food chain.

Decreasing Energy Flow

Energy decreases as one moves through the trophic levels from the bottom to the top of the pyramid. Thus, the energy pyramid is always upward.