27.2: Trophic Levels
All organisms in an ecosystem occupy a trophic level in the food chain. The lowest level consists of primary producers, which synthesize their food from either solar or chemical energy. Each subsequent level obtains energy from the levels below. Detritivores can occupy any of the levels above primary producers.
Within an ecosystem, energy and nutrients flow through organisms in a sequential order known as a food chain. Each organism occupies a trophic level or a specific place within that food chain. The lowest trophic level consists of autotrophic organisms. Autotrophic organisms synthesize their food by transforming energy either from chemicals—chemoautotrophs—or the sun—photoautotrophs. Organisms in the subsequent levels—heterotrophs—obtain energy from other organisms in the levels below. The second trophic level includes primary consumers, herbivores, which consume autotrophs—primary producers—while the third and fourth levels consist of secondary and tertiary consumers, the carnivores. Apex predators occupy the top trophic level of this chain. Decomposers, or detritivores, usually bacteria or fungi that consume dead organisms, can exist on any heterotrophic level and play a critical role in the recycling of nutrients and matter in the ecosystem. These organisms secrete digestive enzymes that break down organic material, converting it into inorganic compounds that can be utilized again by primary producers.
Food chains do not always accurately depict the interactions between species in an ecosystem. Predators and prey can exist at multiple trophic levels. A food web—a holistic model in which all interactions are taken into account—may better depict the complexity of relationships in an ecosystem.