FOOD CHAINS - Energy Education

TOPIC: Ecosystems
1. What are the fundamental components of ecological systems?
2. How does energy move through ecosystems? What transformations are
3. How is energy flow different from the biomass cycle in ecosystems?
BIG IDEA: Ecosystems involve transformations of energy
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the Q540 course: Teaching Environmental Education
Misconceptions are scientifically inaccurate assumptions and explanations of
phenomena constructed by an individual through his/her experiences. Regardless of age
and background, people are likely to have ecological misconceptions.
misconceptions are particularly important to overcome, because ecology teaches students
how they are influenced by, and have influence on, the ecosystems and the biosphere.
Accurate understanding and ability to make decisions about potential environmental
policies that impact the students’ are increasingly demanded as human impacts on the
planet Earth intensify.
Common ecological misconceptions include: 1) plants take in food from the
outside environment, and/or plants get their food from the soil via roots; 2) organisms
higher in a food web eat everything that is lower in the food web; 3) the top of the food
chain has the most energy because it accumulates up the chain; 4) populations higher on a
food web increase in number because they deplete those lower in the web; 5) there are
more herbivores because people keep and breed them; 6) decomposers release some
energy that is cycled back to plants; 7) the number of producers is high to satisfy
consumers; 8) plants are dependent on humans, not vice versa; 9) carbon dioxide is a
source of energy for plants. For references on each of these ecological misconceptions
see Armstrong and Stamp (2004).
This unit plan was constructed with the intent of providing environmental
educators with the curriculum needed to overcome mainly those misconceptions related
to the flow of energy through ecological systems (listed as number 2 and 6). However,
focus on the other misconceptions can be easily accomplished by expanding this unit.
Activities in this unit plan are organized into an instructional sequence that follows the
five phases of a learning cycle (Engage, Explore, Expand, Expand and Evaluate).
In the first phase (Engage), students are asked to build a food web. In the next
phase (Explain), students calculate the efficiency of energy transfer and graph it against
different lengths of food chains. In the Exploration phase, students model the flow of
energy through a food chain by passing a quantity of water along a chain of students. In
the Expand phase students use the computer program called Environmental Decision
Making (EDM) to create a model of a pond ecosystem and run simulations of this model.
Finally, in the Evaluation phase, students are asked to use the cards from the Food Chains
and Webs Pattern Sheet to form a food web and use the EDM software to research the
questions: how many fish you and your friends can remove without destroying future
The engagement activity serves as not only to get students interested but also to
prompt them to think about their prior knowledge related to the ecological concepts at
hand (ecosystems components, energy transformations, etc). The activity used to model
energy from in ecosystems are also modeled strategically, starting with a kinesthetic and
very concrete simulation, and then following with a very abstract and more complex
computer simulation. This transition from concrete to abstract simulations, followed by
extensive analysis and discussion of results is likely to increase the likelihood of success
of overcoming student’s misconceptions related to energy flow in ecosystems. Finally, in
the end of the unit plan, students are asked to use their increased understanding of the
flow of energy in ecosystems to inform their decision about an environmental policy
related to the amount of fishing in a pond, a real-life and complex task.
All living things need energy to grow, reproduce, and survive. All ecosystems,
therefore, need energy. Energy flows through ecosystems in one direction, typically from
the sun. Plants (producers) trap the solar energy and, through photosynthesis, convert it
into the sugars that are their food. Animals eat the plants (herbivores) take some of that
sun-harvested energy into themselves. Other animals (carnivores) eat those animals.
Eventually, the animals die, and their bodies are cleaned off by scavengers and
dismantled by decomposers. The remaining minerals are returned to the soil, which is
enriched by them so that it is once again fertile and can support new plants. Around and
around it goes.
These relationships—which organisms eat which other organisms, and how the
energy is passed from one to another—can be thought of in terms of an imaginary chain.
In this chain, each organism forms a single link: the chain stretches from the blackberries
to the mouse that eats one to the owl that catches the mouse. Such an imaginary chain is
known as a food chain. Food chains describe the flow of energy, in the form of food,
from one organism to another. Each organism forms a link in the chain. Almost all food
chains begin with producers harvesting energy from the sun. From there the energy is
passed from producers to consumers: herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores. When these
die the energy passes to scavengers and decomposers, and back into the soil.
Decomposers, as the last step to replenishing the soil, are both the end and the beginning
of any food chain.
We can see that, as with a real chain, removing any link causes the entire chain to
collapse. If the plants were removed, for example, it would not simply affect
herbivores—for carnivores eat the herbivores. If the decomposers were removed, the soil
would not become replenished with minerals; new plants would not grow; herbivores
would not feed on them. And if the sun were removed from the chain—perhaps by
pollution blocking its light—nothing else on the chain would remain. The last living
recipient of energy in a food chain is called the “top consumer.” It will not be consumed
itself until it dies.
Food chains are a helpful way to think about how energy moves through an
ecosystem. In any real situation, though, there are many different food chains, all
connected to each other. A food web is a diagram that combines food chains to show
these connections. Food webs are made of interconnected food chains. These
relationships can also be imagined as a pyramid, with plants on the bottom, then
herbivores, and then carnivores. This kind of diagram is known as an energy pyramid.
Energy is lost between every feeding level of an energy pyramid. Only about one-tenth of
the energy in plants flows to herbivores. One tenth of the energy in herbivores flows to
carnivores. The rest is used up in the process of staying alive or lost as heat.
The chemical elements that make up the molecules of living things pass through
food webs and are combined and recombined in different ways. At each link in a food
web, some energy is stored in newly made structures but much energy is lost into the
environment as heat. Continual input of energy from sunlight is required to keep this
process going. In this process, atoms and molecules cycle among living and nonliving
components of the biosphere. Carbon dioxide and water molecules used in photosynthesis
to form energy-rich organic compounds are returned to the environment when the energy
in these compounds is eventually released by cells through the processes of cell
respiration and other life activities.
The most abundant organisms in any ecosystem, aside from the decomposers, will
be the producers. Plants have the most energy available to them because they trap it
directly from the sun. There will be fewer carnivores and even fewer top carnivores.
Small populations of top carnivores depend on much larger populations of other animals
to survive. The number of organisms any environment can support is called its carrying
capacity. The carrying capacity of an environment is limited by the available energy,
water, oxygen, and minerals, and by the ability of ecosystems to recycle the remains of
dead organisms through the activities of bacteria and fungi. Living organisms have the
capacity to produce populations of unlimited size, but available resources in their
environments are finite. This restricts the growth of populations and produces
competition between organisms.
Students will be able to
1. Recognize the fundamental components of ecological systems including plant
producers and animal consumers.
2. Demonstrate how species in a food chain interact.
3. Model how energy is transferred through a food chain.
4. Apply their understanding of energy flow to human food chains in order to inform
environmental decisions.
List of relevant NAAEE Guidelines for learning that correlate with this unit plan
(grades 9-12):
Strand 1– Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills
F) Working with models and simulations—Learners are able to create, use, and
evaluate models to understand environmental phenomena.
Strand 2– Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems
Strand 2.2–The Living Environment
A) Organisms, populations, and communities—Learners understand basic population
dynamics and the importance of diversity in living systems.
C) Systems and connections—Learners understand the living environment to be
comprised of interrelated, dynamic systems.
D) Flow of matter and energy—Learners are able to account for environmental
characteristics based on their knowledge of how matter and energy interact in living
Strand 2.4–Environment and Society
A) Human/environment interactions—Learners understand that humans are able to
alter the physical environment to meet their needs and that there are limits to the ability
of the environment to absorb impacts or meet human needs.
Strand 3 – Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues
Strand 3.1–Skills for Analyzing and Investigating Environmental Issues
B) Sorting out the consequences of issues—Learners are able to evaluate the
consequences of specific environmental changes, conditions, and issues for human and
ecological systems.
C) Identifying and evaluating alternative solutions and courses of action—Learners
are able to identify and propose action strategies that are likely to be effective in
particular situations and for particular purposes.
List of relevant Indiana Academic Standards that correlate with this unit plan
(grades 9-12):
Environmental Science
Standard 1- Principles of Environmental Science
Environmental Systems
Env.1.4 Understand and explain that human beings are part of Earth’s ecosystems and
give examples of how human activities can, deliberately or inadvertently, alter
Env.1.10 Identify and measure biological, chemical, and physical factors within an
Flow of Matter and Energy
Env.1.14 Recognize and explain that the amount of life any environment can support is
limited by the available energy, water, oxygen, and minerals, and by the ability of
ecosystems to recycle organic materials from the remains of dead organisms.
Env.1.15 Describe how the chemical elements that make up the molecules of living
things pass through food webs and are combined and recombined in different ways.
B.1.37 Explain that the amount of life any environment can support is limited by the
available energy, water, oxygen, and minerals, and by the ability of ecosystems to recycle
the residue of dead organic materials. Recognize, therefore, that human activities and
technology can change the flow and reduce the fertility of the land.
B.1.41 Recognize that and describe how human beings are part of Earth’s ecosystems.
Note that human activities can, deliberately or inadvertently, alter the equilibrium in
B.1.43 Understand that and describe how organisms are influenced by a particular
combination of living and nonliving components of the environment.
B.1.44 Describe the flow of matter, nutrients, and energy within ecosystems.
Integrated Mathematics I
Standard 2- Algebra and Functions
IM1.2.6 Sketch a reasonable graph for a given relationship.
IM1.2.7 Interpret a graph representing a given situation.
Standard 4 – Data Analysis and Statistics
IM1.4.1 Construct a line plot.
IM1.4.12 Construct a scatterplot from a set of data.
IM1.4.15 Compare sets of data using scatterplots and the line y = x, and interpret these
comparisons for real-world data.
Integrated Mathematics II
Standard 1- Algebra and Functions
IM2.1.2 Interpret given situations as functions in graphs, formulas, and words.
Standard 3 – Data Analysis and Statistics
IM2.3.1 Describe the association between two variables by interpreting a scatterplot.
5.1. Engagement Phase
Cut out the pictures from the Food Chain Picture Page, and have students paste
them on separate pages under the appropriate headings of Producer, Primary
Consumer/Herbivore, Secondary Consumer/Carnivore. Alternatively you could hand out
the pages to groups of students and have them write down the headings on a sheet of
paper, filling the names of the animals shown on the sheet under the appropriate heading.
Divide the class into small groups. Each group must use the pictures from the
Food Chain Picture Page handout to form a food chain and food web. Each group is then
given an opportunity to present to the class explaining why they used the pictures they
did. Alternatively they can just write the names of the organism down in a diagram as
above allowing you to reuse the Picture Page.
5.2. Exploration Phase - Energy Transfer in a Food Chain
In this phase students will model the flow of energy through a food chain by passing a
quantity of water along a chain of students.
5 1-gallon jugs, filled with tap water
5 metric measuring cups or graduated cylinders, holding at least 500 mls (approx. 2 cups)
15 8 oz cups, 3 having 2 pencil-size holes, and 12 having one pencil-sized hole
Masking tape (5 pieces 10 cm long) + marker/ or chalk
15 numbered organism cards organized into five food chains (by color) as follows:
Redwood (1)
Milkweed(1), monarch caterpillar (2)
Wheat(1), field mouse(2), hawk(3)
Grass(1), beetle(2), chicken(3), fox(4)
Plankton(1), shrimp(2), anchovy(3), cod(4), human(5)
On a walkway outside, set up the materials as follows
Chain A
Chain B
Chain C
1 gallon
1 gallon jug
1 gallon jug
grad cyl.
Grad. cyl. (2)
Grad cyl. (3)
Chain D
1 gallon jug
Chain E
1 gallon jug
Grad. Cyl (4)
Grad cyl. (5)
1. Distribute organism cards to 15 students and ask them to form 5 food chains.
2. For each food chain, 3 additional students will play the following roles
3. Go outdoors to marked walkway. Ask food chain students to align themselves in a row
at the markers matching their link (number) in the food chain. Ask the measurer and
recorder to stand next to the last Link in the food chain. Ask the pourer to stand next to
the first Link in the food chain.
4. Distribute cups as follows. One hole - to links 1-3. Cups with 2 holes to links 4 and 5.
Procedure for energy transfer, using the 3-link chain as an example. Read this through
before beginning:
A. When “start” is called, Link 1 in each group will have his or her cup filled completely
by the pourer. The pourer will fill up Link 1’s cup as many times as s/he can, until there
is no more water in the jug.
B. Link 1 immediately runs to Link 2 (who must be standing on her or his marker) and
pours the water into Link 2’s cup. Link 1 runs back to their marker and gets another cup
C. As soon as Link 2’s cup is full, they immediately go to Link 3 and pass the water to
Link 3. Link 2 then returns to his or her marker.
D. Link 3 immediately pours the water in the cup into the graduated cylinder held by the
E. When the graduated cylinder reaches capacity (500 mls) the measurer informs the
recorder, who records the volume. If the cylinder has less than 500 mls at the end of the
exercise, the measurer tells the recorder that amount.
5.3. Explanation Phase
Class Data Table
Food Chain
No. of cups from
length (in links)
large jug
Vol. of cup
Total vol. of
water from large
Vol. of water in
end containers
A. For your group, calculate the “efficiency of energy transfer” for your food chain by
using the following formula:
% efficiency of energy transfer = Volume of water in the end container (ml) X 100
Total vol. of water taken from large jug (ml)
1. What does water in the large jug represent?
2. What does the water you receive from another food chain species represent?
3. What does the spilled water represent?
4. What does the water in the end bucket represent?
5. Graph the relationship between length of food chain (mv) and energy transfer
efficiency (rv).
5.4. Expansion Phase
In this phase students will use the computer program called Environmental
Decision Making (EDM) to create a model of a pond ecosystem and run simulations of
this model.
First, the instructor will give the students a demonstration of how to use the EDM
software to model a pond ecosystem. This can be done by following steps laid out on
pages 5 thru 15 of the User Manual. The instructor must cover the following basic skills:
creating a model by dragging icons form the library, inserting connectors between picture
icons, plotting output, calibrating, running simulation, reading quantities from the graph,
and changing graph display.
Once students become familiar with the basics of EDM, they should get into
pairs. Each group will receive the following instructions:
“Imagine you are given access to a bass fishing pond. It is 1 hectare (a measure
of area equal to 2.5 acres – about 2 ½ football fields) and contains small plants
and animals, sunfish and bass. To model this system, you will need to consider
the sunlight and the various plants and animals living in the pond. Energy from
the sun flows into the pond and is used by photosynthetic organisms such algae
and plants. Some energy from the photosynthetic organisms is then used by
consumers such as animals and microbes. In the model, this mixture of small
photosynthetic organisms and consumers is simply called pond life. Sunfish
consume some of the pond life for food, and bass feed on the sunfish. An
important measure which allows you to track the successive energy transfer is
biomass, the weight of the organisms measured in kilograms (kg). First, construct
a model of this ecosystem and then follow the steps described below:
A. Record the biomass (weight) at steady state of: bass, sunfish, and pond life.
These steady levels of the components are the pond’s carrying capacity for
their populations.
B. How many bass will this pond support (its carrying capacity for bass)?
C. Put the pond in another part of the country. Would you have more or less
pond life, sunfish and bass (biomass) in this pond than in your original? Type
in the appropriate sunlight from the map of the annual daily average sun’s
energy (Figure 5). Run the simulation. Explain the results.
D. Put the sunlight quantity back to your original. If you started with twice as
many sunfish, would the system stabilize at the same quantities as in the
original? Go back to your picture icon model, bring up the sunfish dialog box
and put in twice as much. Then run the simulation. Record the biomass of
bass, sunfish and pond life. Explain the results.”
Students should be able to find that the only to change carrying capacity is by
means of a drastic change in the location of the pond. This change is due to the fact that
different regions of the U.S. receive different amounts of energy from the sun. The
amount entering an ecosystem will determine its carrying capacity.
5.5. Evaluation Phase
In this phase, students will
1. Use the cards from the Food Chains and Webs Pattern Sheet to form food chains
and to see how all of the food chains interconnect to form a food web:
A. Sort the organisms into groups of producers, herbivores, carnivores, and
omnivores. Check to make sure the students correctly sorts the animals
into groups of producers, herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores.
Producers: algae, water lily, and duckweed
Herbivores: daphnia and snail
Carnivores: frog, great blue heron, mink, dragonfly
Omnivore: turtle
B. Have students explain the difference between a food chain and a food
web. Emphasize that most organisms eat more than one thing, and food
webs show many interconnected food pathways. Examples of food
chains: algae-daphnia frog-Great Blue Heron or mink or turtle duckweedturtle-mink water lily-snail-frog-Great Blue Heron or mink or turtle.
C. Have your student choose a food chain and explain how energy is
transferred through an ecosystem.
Ask questions such as:
- What is the original source of energy for all the food chains you have made?
(The sun)
- Which animals have the most energy available to them to use? (Producers:
algae, water lily, duckweed)
- Which animals have the least amount of energy to use? (Consumers
[carnivores] at the top of the food chain, such as great blue herons, mink)
D. Ask your student in what type of ecosystem might he find all these
animals? (Pond)
2. Students will use the EDM software to research the questions: how many fish
you and your friends can remove without destroying future fishing. Have
students follow the following steps:
A. Change simulation run time to 3 years (1095 days).
B. What would happen to the fish population if you and your friends doubled your
fishing time (Try different amounts of fishing: 2, 3, 4 hours, etc.)? If you cut it in
What is the maximum sustainable yield of bass from this pond? (Tip: Maximum
sustainable yield is to catch as many fish as possible while maintaining enough
stock so that reproduction and growth will replace the fish caught year after year.)
C. How many hours per day of fishing produce this yield?
D. Move around the country (change sunlight by checking the map in Figure 5) –
where would a pond like this yield the most fish?
Rubrics for Assessment
Constructed Food Chains and Webs – Propositional Knowledge
5 points
1. Identify the carnivores,
herbivores, and omnivores in
the given list.
2. Define food web and define
food chain.
3. Create a food web containing
at least 10 parts. Highlight
one food chain within this
4. Identify at least one organism
representing a producer, a
consumer, and a decomposer
in this food web.
5. The sun is pictured and
labeled as the beginning of
all energy.
4 points
4 of the
were present.
3 points
3 of the
were present.
0 points
None of the
indicators were
EDM Investigation Tasks – Competency
5 points
4 points
1. Assemble a model Results almost
always reasonable.
of the ecosystem
using icons.
2. Collect data by
justification of
simulations in
Very few errors in
order to better
use of language
understand and
and methods of
refine the model.
science and math.
3. Calibrate
Very seldom
ecosystem model
needs help
using data.
(guidance and
4. Generalize about
likely behaviors of Exhibits full
ecosystems based knowledge and
on modeling and
5. Identify the
consequences of
specific human
decisions affecting
the pond
3 points
Results usually
Some justification
of conclusions,
but incomplete.
Some errors in
use of language
and methods of
science and math.
Requires some
help (guidance
and explanation).
knowledge and
0 points
Results often
Very little
justification of
Many errors in
use of language
and methods of
science and math.
Requires much
help (guidance
and explanation).
Exhibits little
knowledge or
Armstrong, M. and Stamp, N. (2004). Overcoming Ecological Misconception – The
“Energy Transfer in a Food Chain” was adapted from Community of Life a module in the
Applications in Biology/Chemistry series, Waco, TX: Center for Occupational Research
and Development, 1997, pp. 89- 95.
Odum, E. C., Odum, H. T., and Perterson, N. S. (2002). Environmental Decision
Making. In J. Jungck and V. Vaughan (Eds.) BioQUEST Library VI. San Diego:
Academic Press, 2002.
For more information about energy flow in ecosystems see the following websites:
Energy Flow in Ecosystems
Food Webs: Energy Flow in an Ecosystem
Food Chains
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