In the ecosystem, green plants alone are able to trap in solar energy and convert it into chemical energy. The chemical energy is locked up in the various organic compounds, such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins, present in the green plants. Since virtually all other living organisms depend upon green plants for their energy, the efficiency of plants in any given area in capturing solar energy sets the upper limit to long-term energy flow and biological activity in the community.
The food manufactured by the green plants is utilized by themselves and also by herbivores. Animals feed repeatedly. Herbivores fall prey to some carnivorous animals. In this way one form of life supports the other form. Thus, food from one trophic level reaches to the other trophic level and in this way a chain is established. This is known as food chain.
A food chain may be defined as the transfer of energy and nutrients through a succession of organisms through repeated process of eating and being eaten. In food chain initial link is a green plant or producer which produces chemical energy available to consumers. For example, marsh grass is consumed by grasshopper, the grasshopper is consumed by a bird and that bird is consumed by hawk.
Thus, a food chain is formed which can be written as follows:
Marsh grass → grasshopper → bird → hawk
Food chain in any ecosystem runs directly in which green plants are eaten by herbivores, herbivores are eaten by carnivores and carnivores are eaten by top carnivores. Man forms the terrestrial links of many food chains.
Food chains are of three types:
- Grazing food chain
- Parasitic food chain
- Saprophytic or detritus food chain