Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: food chain from Dictionary of Energy

Ecology. the transfer of energy in a given ecosystem, moving through various stages as a result of the feeding patterns of a series of organisms. A typical food chain begins with green plants (autotrophs) that derive their energy from sunlight, then continues with organisms that eat these plants (heterotrophs), then other organisms that consume the plant-eaters, then decomposers that break down the dead bodies of those organisms so that they can be used as soil nutrients by plants.

Summary Article: food chain from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide
Image from: food chain in The Macmillan Encyclopedia

In ecology, a sequence showing the feeding relationships between organisms in a habitat or ecosystem. It shows who eats whom. An organism in one food chain can belong to other food chains. This can be shown in a diagram called a food web.

One of the most important aspects of food is that it provides energy for an organism. So a food chain shows where each organism gets its energy. The arrow in a food chain represents the direction of energy flow. Not all of the energy in all of the organisms at one step of a food chain is available to the organisms later in the chain. In general, fewer organisms are found at each step, or trophic level, of the chain. A pyramid of numbers shows this clearly. Some organisms may be small but very numerous, so population size may not be a good measure of how much of an organism there is in a habitat. Biomass – the total mass of organisms in an area – may be a more useful measure.

Some food chains start with organisms that decompose the remains of dead plants and animals. Decomposers can be fungi and bacteria and they have an important role in a habitat or ecosystem. Nutrients inside the dead organisms are released by the decomposers and are made available to other organisms. The carbon cycle shows how carbon compounds are cycled.

Energy in the form of food is shown to be transferred from autotrophs, or producers, which are principally plants and photosynthetic micro-organisms, to a series of heterotrophs, or consumers. The heterotrophs comprise the herbivores, which feed on the producers; carnivores, which feed on the herbivores; and decomposers, which break down the dead bodies and waste products of all four groups (including their own), ready for recycling.

Consider a food chain starting with grass, then caterpillar, then blue tit, then sparrowhawk. This chain starts, as do most others, with a green plant. The reason for this is that the plant makes high-energy food (carbohydrate) using the energy of sunlight through photosynthesis. The plant is known as a producer, because it produces food. All the other members are consumers, because they consume the food made by the first organism. The second member, in this case a caterpillar, is a herbivore, because it eats plants. The third and later members are carnivores. In reality, however, organisms have varied diets, relying on different kinds of food, so the food chain is an oversimplification. The more complex food web shows a greater variety of relationships, but again emphasizes that energy passes from plants to herbivores to carnivores.

Environmentalists have used the concept of the food chain to show how poisons and other forms of pollution can pass from one animal to another, threatening rare species. For example, the pesticide DDT, which is now banned in the UK, has been found in lethal concentrations in the bodies of animals at the top of the food chain, such as the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos. In the last organism it may have risen to a level that harms the animal. This is known as bioaccumulation.


DDT and Food Chains

Energy transfer in ecosystems

Predation and competition

Human activity and water pollution

Food chains and toxic materials

Food webs and pyramids of numbers


food web

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved.

Related Credo Articles

food chain
The Encyclopedia of Ecology and Environmental Management, Blackwell Science

A series of organisms linked by their Feeding relationships. Each link in the chain feeds on, and obtains energy from, the preceding link...

food chain
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A series of organisms associated in a feeding relationship: each animal feeds on the one below it in the series. Usually, green plants are at...

food chain
Philip's Encyclopedia

Transfer of energy through a series of organisms, each organism consuming the previous member of the chain. Its main sequence is from green...

See more from Credo