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A diagram depicting those organisms that eat other organisms in the same ecosystem. In some cases, the organisms may already be dead. Thus, a food web is a network of energy flows in and out of the ecosystem of interest. Such flows can be very large, and some ecosystems depend almost entirely on energy that is imported. A food chain is one particular route through a food web.
A food web helps depict how an ecosystem is structured and functions. Most published food webs omit predation on minor species, the quantities of food consumed, the temporal variation of the flows, and many other details.
Along a simple food chain, A eats B, B eats C, and so on. For example, the energy that plants capture from the sun during photosynthesis may end up in the tissues of a hawk. It gets there via a bird that the hawk has eaten, the insects that were eaten by the bird, and the plants on which the insects fed. Each stage of the food chain is called a trophic level. More generally, the trophic levels are separated into producers (the plants), herbivores or primary consumers (the insects), carnivores or secondary consumers (the bird), and top carnivores or tertiary consumers (the hawk).
Food chains may involve parasites as well as predators. The lice feeding in the feathers of the hawk are yet another trophic level. When decaying vegetation, dead animals, or both are the energy sources, the food chains are described as detrital. Food chains are usually short; the shortest have two levels. One way to describe and simplify various food chains is to count the most common number of levels from the top to the bottom of the web. Most food chains are three or four trophic levels long (if parasites are excluded), though there are longer ones.
There are several possible explanations for why food chains are generally short. Between each trophic level, much of the energy is lost as heat. As the energy passes up the food chain, there is less and less to go around. There may not be enough energy to support a viable population of a species at trophic level five or higher.
This energy flow hypothesis is widely supported, but it is also criticized because it predicts that food chains should be shorter in energetically poor ecosystems such as a bleak arctic tundra or extreme deserts. These systems often have food chains similar in length to energetically more productive systems. See Ecological energetics
Another hypothesis about the shortness of food chains has to do with how quickly particular species recover from environmental disasters. For example, in a lake with phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish, when the phytoplankton decline the zooplankton will also decline, followed by the fish. The phytoplankton may recover but will remain at low levels, kept there by the zooplankton. At least transiently, the zooplankton may reach higher than normal levels because the fish, their predators, are still scarce. The phytoplankton will not completely recover until all the species in the food chain have recovered. Mathematical models can show that the longer the food chain, the longer it will take its constituent species to recover from perturbations. Species atop very long food chains may not recover before the next disaster. Such arguments predict that food chains will be longer when environmental disasters are rare, short when they are common, and will not necessarily be related to the amount of energy entering the system.
The number of trophic levels a food web contains will determine what happens when an ecosystem is subjected to a short, sharp shock—for example, when a large number of individuals of one species are killed by a natural disaster or an incident of human-made pollution and how quickly the system will recover. The food web will also influence what happens if the abundance of a species is permanently reduced (perhaps because of harvesting) or increased (perhaps by increasing an essential nutrient for a plant).
Some species have redundant roles in an ecosystem so that their loss will not seriously impair the system's dynamics. Therefore, the loss of such species from an ecosystem will not have a substantial effect on ecosystem function. The alternative hypothesis is that more diverse ecosystems could have a greater chance of containing species that survive or that can even thrive during a disturbance that kills off other species. Highly connected and simple food webs differ in their responses to disturbances, so once again the structure of food webs makes a difference. See Ecological communities, Ecosystem, Population ecology