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6.4: Trophic Levels

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Why are pyramids important in ecology?

The classic example of a pyramid is shown here. But the pyramid structure can also represent the decrease in a measured substance from the lowest level on up. In ecology, pyramids model the use of energy from the producers through the ecosystem.

Trophic Levels

The feeding positions in a food chain or web are called trophic levels. The different trophic levels are defined in the Table below. Examples are also given in the table. All food chains and webs have at least two or three trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels.

Trophic Level Where It Gets Food Example
1st Trophic Level: Producer Makes its own food Plants make food
2nd Trophic Level: Primary Consumer Consumes producers Mice eat plant seeds
3rd Trophic Level: Secondary Consumer Consumes primary consumers Snakes eat mice
4th Trophic Level: Tertiary Consumer Consumes secondary consumers Hawks eat snakes

Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level. Humans, for example, are primary consumers when they eat plants such as vegetables. They are secondary consumers when they eat cows. They are tertiary consumers when they eat salmon.

Trophic Levels and Energy

Energy is passed up a food chain or web from lower to higher trophic levels. However, generally only about 10 percent of the energy at one level is available to the next level. This is represented by the ecological pyramid in Figure below. What happens to the other 90 percent of energy? It is used for metabolic processes or given off to the environment as heat. This loss of energy explains why there are rarely more than four trophic levels in a food chain or web. Sometimes there may be a fifth trophic level, but usually there’s not enough energy left to support any additional levels.

Ecological Pyramid. This pyramid shows how energy and biomass decrease from lower to higher trophic levels. Assume that producers in this pyramid have 1,000,000 kilocalories of energy. How much energy is available to primary consumers?

Ecological pyramids can demonstrate the decrease in energy, biomass or numbers within an ecosystem. Energy pyramids are discussed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8T2nEMzk6_E&feature=related (1:44).

Trophic Levels and Biomass

With less energy at higher trophic levels, there are usually fewer organisms as well. Organisms tend to be larger in size at higher trophic levels, but their smaller numbers result in less biomass. Biomass is the total mass of organisms at a trophic level. The decrease in biomass from lower to higher levels is also represented by Figure above.


  • The different feeding positions in a food chain or web are called trophic levels.
  • Generally, there are no more than four trophic levels because energy and biomass decrease from lower to higher levels.
  • For a summary of Trophic Levels and Producer vs. Consumer, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUZkWZ12A8s.


Use these resources to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Define trophic level.
  2. What is the role of organisms in the first trophic level?
  3. What are the main primary producers in aquatic ecosystems?
  4. Give examples of primary consumers and secondary consumers.
  1. Discuss the importance of primary producers.
  2. Define biomass.
  3. What is meant by ecological efficiency?
  4. Compare a pyramid of productivity to a biomass pyramid and a pyramid of numbers.
  5. What is shown in each type of ecological pyramid?


1. What is a trophic level?

2. Draw a terrestrial food chain that includes four trophic levels. Identify the trophic level of each organism in the food chain.

3. Explain how energy limits the number of trophic levels in a food chain or web.


ecological pyramid

Pyramid shaped diagram demonstrating how energy, biomass or numbers decrease from lower to higher trophic levels.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Jul 09, 2016
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