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11.16: Flow of Matter in Ecosystems

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What happens when you don't get enough of a nutrient?

Millions of sailors in the 15th through 18th centuries died mysteriously. They developed a disease called scurvy. The scurvy, it turns out, was due to the lack of vitamin C in their diets. It wasn't until 1932 that the link between scurvy and vitamin C was made. Without the right nutrients in the right amounts, you can't live. Other animals and plants also need the right nutrients to live.

How Matter Moves Through Ecosystems

Living things need nonliving matter as well as energy. What do you think matter is used for? One thing is to build bodies. They also need it to carry out the processes of life. Any nonliving matter that living things need is called a nutrient . Carbon and nitrogen are examples of nutrients. Unlike energy, matter is recycled in ecosystems. You can see how in Figure below .

  • Decomposers release nutrients when they break down dead organisms.
  • The nutrients are taken up by plants through their roots.
  • The nutrients pass to primary consumers when they eat the plants.
  • The nutrients pass to higher level consumers when they eat lower level consumers.
  • When living things die, the cycle repeats.

This diagram shows two cycles. One is the cycle of energy, the other is the cycle of matter. Compare the two cycles. Do you see how the sun keeps adding energy? That’s because energy is lost at each step of the cycle. Matter doesn’t have to be added. Can you explain why?


  • nutrients : Nonliving matter that organisms need to live and grow.


  • Nutrients are crucial to the growth of organisms.
  • Decomposers break down dead organisms into nutrients and gases so that they can be used by other organisms.
  • Nutrients can enter or exit an ecosystem at any point and can cycle around the planet.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


  1. What is carbon dioxide in the air a reservoir for?
  2. What do producers do with carbon?
  3. What do herbivores do with carbon?
  4. Why is the biomass of carnivores less than herbivores?
  5. What do decomposers do?
  6. How is carbon returned to the atmosphere?


  1. How does the flow of matter differ from the flow of energy through an ecosystem?
  2. How do nutrients move through an ecosystem?
  3. What would happen to life on Earth if there were no decomposers?

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