Energy Flow in an Ecosystem and Ecological Succession


Energy Flow in an Ecosystem

Biological activities require energy which ultimately comes from the sun. Solar energy is transformed into chemical energy by a process of photosynthesis this energy is stored in plant tissue and then transformed into heat energy during metabolic activities. Thus in biological world the energy flows from the sun to plants and then to all heterotrophic organisms. The flow of energy is unidirectional and non-cyclic. 

Energy Flow in an Ecosystem

This one way flow of energy is governed by laws of thermodynamics which states that:

(a) Energy can neither be created nor be destroyed but may be transformed from one form to another

(b) During the energy transfer there is degradation of energy from a concentrated form (mechanical, chemical, or electrical etc.) to a dispersed form (heat). 

No energy transformation is 100 % efficient; it is always accompanied by some dispersion or loss of energy in the form heat. Therefore, biological systems including ecosystems must be supplied with energy on a continuous Basis.


1. Single Channel Energy Flow Model

The flow of energy takes place in a unidirectional manner through a single channel of producers to herbivores and carnivores. The energy captured by autotrophs does not revert back to solar input but passes to herbivores; and that which passes to herbivores does not go back to autotrophs but passes to consumers. 

Single Channel Energy Flow Model

Due to one way flow of energy, the entire system would collapse if primary source of energy were cut off. At each tropic level there occurs progressive decrease in energy which is mainly due to loss of energy as heat in metabolic reactions and also some of the energy is utilized at each tropic level.

2. Y- shaped model

This model shows a common boundary, light and heat flow as well as import, export and storage of organic matter . Decomposers are placed in separate box to partially separate the grazing and detritus food chains. In terms of energy levels decomposers are in fact a mixed group. 

Y- shaped energy flow is more realistic and practical than the single channel energy flow model because: It conforms to the basic stratified structure of ecosystems. It separates the two chains i.e. grazing & detritus food chain in both time and space. Micro consumers (bacteria & fungi) and the macro consumers (animals) differ greatly in size- metabolism relations in two models.

3. Universal energy flow model

As the flow of energy takes place, there is gradual loss of energy at each level there by resulting in less energy available at the next tropic level as indicated by narrower pipes (energy flow) and smaller boxes (stored energy in biomass). 

Universal energy flow model

The loss of energy is mainly the energy which is not utilized (U). This is the energy loss in locomotion, excretion etc. or it the energy lost in respiration (CR) which is for maintenance. The remaining energy is used for production (P).


Ecological Succession is the phenomenon or process by which a community progressively transforms itself until a stable community is formed. It is a fundamental concept in ecology, refers to more or less predictable and orderly changes in the composition or structure of an ecological community. Succession may be initiated either by formation of new, unoccupied habitat (e.g., a lava flow or a severe landslide) or by some form of disturbance (e.g. fire, severe wind throw , logging) of an existing community. Succession that begins in areas where no soil is initially present is called primary succession, whereas succession that begins in areas where soil is already present is called secondary succession.

Clement's theory of succession/Mechanisms of succession

F.E. Clement (1916) developed a descriptive theory of succession and advanced it as a general ecological concept. His theory of succession had a powerful influence on ecological thought. Clement's concept is usually termed classical ecological theory. According to Clement, succession is a process involving several phases:

1. Nudation: Succession begins with the development of a bare site, called Nudation (disturbance).

2. Migration: It refers to arrival of propagules.

3. Ecesis: It involves establishment and initial growth of vegetation.

4. Competition: As vegetation became well established, grew, and spread, various species began to compete for space, light and nutrients. This phase is called competition.

5. Reaction: During this phase autogenic changes affect the habitat resulting in replacement of one plant community by another.

6. Stabilization: Reaction phase leads to development of a climax community.

Seral communities

A seral community is an intermediate stage found in an ecosystem advancing towards its climax community. In many cases more than one seral stage evolves until climax conditions are attained. A prisere is a collection of seres making up the development of an area from non-vegetated surfaces to a climax community. Depending on the substratum and climate, a seral community can be one of the following: 

Hydrosere : Community in freshwater
Lithosere : Community on rock
Psammosere : Community on sand
Xerosere : Community in dry area
Halosere : Community in saline body (e.g. a marsh)

Climax community

The final or stable community in a sere is the climax community or climatic vegetation. It is self-perpetuating and in equilibrium with the physical habitat. There is no net annual accumulation of organic matter in a climax community mostly. The annual production and use of energy is balanced in such a community.

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