The energy necessary for all life processes reaches the earth in the form of sunlight. By photosynthesis green plants convert the light energy into chemical energy, and carbon dioxide and water are transformed into sugar and stored in the plant. Herbivorous animals acquire some of the stored energy by eating the plants; those animals in turn serve as food for, and so pass the energy to, predatory animals. Such sequences, called food chains, overlap at many points, forming so-called food webs. For example, insects are food for reptiles, which are food for hawks. But hawks also feed directly on insects and on other birds that feed on insects, while some reptiles prey on birds. Since a severe loss of the original energy occurs with each transfer from species to species, the ecologist views the food (energy) structure as a pyramid: Each level supports a smaller number and mass of organisms. Thus in a year's time it would take millions of plants weighing tons to feed the several steer weighing a few tons that could support one or two people. The ecological conclusion is that if human beings would eat more plants and fewer animals, food resources would stretch much further. Once the energy for life is spent, it cannot be replenished except by the further exposure of green plants to sunlight.
The chemical materials extracted from the environment and elaborated into living tissue by plants and animals are continually recycled within the ecosystem by such processes as photosynthesis, respiration, nitrogen fixation, and nitrification. These natural processes of withdrawing and returning materials are variously called the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, and the nitrogen cycle. Water is also cycled. Evaporation from lakes and oceans forms clouds; the clouds release rain that is taken up by the soil, absorbed by plants, and passed on to feeding animals—which also drink directly from pools and lakes that catch the rain. The water in plant and animal wastes and dead tissue then evaporates and can be recycled. Interference with these vital cycles by disturbance of the environment—for example, by pollution of the air and water—may disrupt the workings of the entire ecosystem. The cycles are facilitated when an ecosystem has a sufficient biological diversity of species to fill its so-called ecological niches, the different functional sites in the environment where organisms can act as producers of energy, consumers of energy, or decomposers of wastes. Such diversity tends to make a community stable and self-perpetuating.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.