Energy transfer in ecosystems

Most of the sugars synthesised by plants through photosynthesis are used by the plant as respiratory substrates. The rest are used to make other groups of biological molecules. These biological molecules form the biomass of the plants.

In any ecosystem the biomass transfers between trophic levels can be measured and the efficiency of biomass transfers between trophic levels can be measured.

Biomass can be measured in terms of mass of carbon or dry mass of tissue per given area per given time. The chemical energy store in dry biomass can be estimated using calorimetry.

Human activities, such as agriculture, can manipulate the transfer of biomass through ecosystems.

Whilst this list provides a source of information and ideas for experimental work, it is important to note that recommendations can date very quickly. Do NOT follow suggestions which conflict with current advice from CLEAPSS, SSERC or other recent safety guides. eLibrary users are responsible for ensuring that any activity, including practical work, which they carry out is consistent with current regulations related to Health and Safety and that they carry an appropriate risk assessment. Further information is provided in our Health and Safety guidance

Links and Resources

Science in the Environment Pack 2: Living Systems

In this comprehensive resource, from the University of York Science Education Group, there is a specific section of the pack on Ecosystems and energy- section 2A2.1.

The pack was originally intended as self study/independent learning material. It would be suitable for A level students to be asked to work through the ten pages of section 2A2.1. They could read through the material, making notes, and answering the questions throughout the text and at the end of the text. The level of detail is high end GCSE and the numerical requirements will challenge some A level students and support development of mathematical skills, even if the energy production equation is not a requirement of A level specifications.

Section 2A2.2 goes into detail about thermodynamics and is a step too far in terms of the requirements for A level biology.

publication year
2000 - 2009

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Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

This interactive resource was produced by London Gifted & Talented and although the animations now appear somewhat basic this resource would still provide a useful diagnostic tool on the topic of energy transfer in ecosystem.

The animation could be used as stimulus material to start discussions. For each section of the animation students can answer a question or be posed a challenge and a hypothesis. The challenge and hypothesis provide suitable questions/discussion points for A level biologists.

Hypothesis statements include why and how would the pyramid of biomass change from summer to winter? This would make a good question for A level students to consider and then select five students to present their answer on the board, with suitable examples.

publication year
2000 - 2009

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Energy Transfer

This article from the Catalyst magazine focuses on food chains. It looks at photosynthesis and the loss of energy from plants to animals throughout the food chain. How this limits the number of animals that can survive on the energy fixed by a patch of vegetation is explained.

Although originally written for GCSE level students, the article does contain a good amount of detail on the measurement of energy transfer, and would make good pre-topic reading for A level biologists.

The questions embedded within the text of the article, such as estimate the area of territory a cat would need if it had to fend for itself, would make for a good starter activity.

publication year
2000 - 2009

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Ecological Energetics

This is a old publication, but its importance should not be under estimated! This booklet provides a comprehensive study of the topic of energy transfer in ecosystems, and would make excellent reading for any teacher who needs to refresh their subject knowledge on this topic before delivering it to students.

This booklet contains sections that look at topics on:
• energy, energy conversion, conservation and utilization
• food webs and trophic levels
• grazers and detritus feeders in the ecosystem
• energy flow at the population level
• humans and balanced ecosystems

There are some very useful illustrations and data within the booklet which could be used with students. On page six, for example, fig1.1 illustrating the fate of solar energy would be an interesting study. Students could be given the following questions to consider: what units are used? Are these the units we use today?  How were these measurements made? These questions could provide for the start of a discussion on this topic.

publication year
1960 - 1969

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Practical Guide 7: Ecology

Published by the Nuffield Foundation this Revised Nuffield Advanced Biology Practical Guide is a lengthy and comprehensive guide to a range of possible practical activities related to ecology.

For energy transfer in ecosystems, the most useful chapter is chapter 29, which can be found from page 51 onwards.

There are two practical activities described to investigate energy transfer in ecosystems.  One of these requires an aquarium, which may be something worth considering at the start of term as there are a number of other ways this can be used to support A level (for example, classification, microscope work etc).

A level students could complete the practical activity using an aquarium or could be given prepared slides and figures. There are a range of questions that can then be answered linked to this practical activity which provide a good level of challenge.

Similarly the practical activity on energy requirements of a stick insect could also be completed and the questions answered, again developing student’s practical competency, but also their ability to answer questions related to a practical activity.

publication year
1980 - 1989

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Science in Society Readers: Reader E - Agriculture

This booklet covers a lot of material which is above the requirement at A level biology. The first chapter, however, would be a useful read for teachers delivering this topic and it would be possible to extract some useful sections of text and data to use with students. For example the section on ecology and food production on pages six and seven provides some really useful data in tables of primary production figures g/m2 per year for range of organisms.

publication year
1980 - 1989

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