Pyramid of Biomass – Definition, Types, Examples

What is Biomass Pyramid?

  • In the realm of ecology, the intricate relationship between the energy, biomass, and bio-productivity across various trophic levels in an ecosystem is visually represented by what is termed the “ecological pyramid” or “Eltonian pyramid.” This pyramid serves as a graphical illustration of the energy dynamics within an ecosystem.
  • At its core, a biomass pyramid portrays the cumulative biomass or organic matter distributed across different trophic levels within an ecosystem. Biomass, in this context, is defined as the aggregate mass of living entities within a specific trophic level, typically quantified as dry weight in grams or as calories per unit area. The quantification of biomass is often achieved using a device known as a bomb calorimeter.
  • Trophic levels delineate the distinct position an organism occupies within a food chain. The foundational level, known as the 1st trophic level, is occupied by producers. Ascending the pyramid, the subsequent level is inhabited by herbivores or primary consumers, culminating with carnivores, both secondary and tertiary consumers, at the apex.
  • One of the pivotal insights offered by the biomass pyramid is the elucidation of energy transmission from producers to consumers. It is imperative to note that a mere 10% of energy is relayed to the succeeding trophic level, with the residual energy being allocated for metabolic activities or being excreted.
  • The biomass present at a specific trophic level is indicative of the living material available within that level’s individual or collective organisms per unit area. This pyramid’s structure is underpinned by the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, which posit that energy, while conserved, undergoes transformation from one state to another. In the context of the biomass pyramid, energy is channeled from producers to consumers, subsequently being metamorphosed into biomass.
  • There exist two primary classifications of biomass pyramids: the upright and the inverted. These classifications are discernible in diverse ecosystems, ranging from grasslands and forests to marine environments.
  • In summation, the biomass pyramid provides a comprehensive overview of the distribution of biomass across trophic levels, elucidating the energy dynamics inherent in ecosystems. Its representation underscores the energy conservation principle and the limited energy transfer between trophic levels, offering invaluable insights into the functioning of natural systems.

Definition of Biomass Pyramid

A biomass pyramid is a graphical representation of the total biomass or organic matter at each trophic level in an ecosystem, illustrating the flow of energy from producers to consumers.

What is Biomass?

In the scientific realm of ecology, “biomass” is defined as the cumulative mass of all living or organic entities present within a specific ecosystem at a given moment.


Biomass can be broadly categorized into two distinct types: Species Biomass and Community Biomass.

  1. Species Biomass: This pertains to the aggregate mass of all individuals within a single species in an ecosystem. It encompasses entities ranging from microscopic organisms to larger beings, including humans.
  2. Community Biomass: This refers to the combined mass of all species that identify a particular community as their natural habitat.

In essence, biomass provides a quantitative measure of the organic matter within an ecosystem, offering insights into the health and vitality of that system.


Features of Pyramid of Biomass

The Pyramid of Biomass is a scientific tool that provides a visual representation of the total dry weight of organisms across different trophic levels within an ecosystem. The following are its salient features:

  1. Weight-Based Representation: Unlike other ecological pyramids where organisms are counted, the Pyramid of Biomass focuses on the weight of individuals. This ensures a more accurate depiction of the distribution of organic matter.
  2. Snapshot of a Moment: The pyramid captures the total dry weight of organisms at each trophic level at a specific point in time, offering a snapshot of the ecosystem’s state.
  3. Comprehensive Data Collection: To construct the Pyramid of Biomass, the dry weight of all species within each trophic level is meticulously gathered and assessed. This rigorous data collection ensures precision in the pyramid’s representation.
  4. Solution to Size Discrepancies: By emphasizing weight over count, the Pyramid of Biomass addresses the issue of size variations among organisms. This ensures that larger organisms don’t disproportionately influence the representation.
  5. Standardized Measurement Unit: Biomass within the pyramid is quantified in terms of grams per square meter, providing a standardized metric for comparison across different ecosystems or time frames.

In summary, the Pyramid of Biomass offers a comprehensive and accurate depiction of the distribution of organic matter across trophic levels, making it an invaluable tool in ecological studies.


Types of Biomass Pyramid

Upward Pyramid of Biomass
Upward Pyramid of Biomass

The Biomass Pyramid is a graphical representation that showcases the distribution of biomass across different trophic levels in an ecosystem. Based on the distribution and structure, the biomass pyramid can be categorized into two primary types:

  1. Upward Pyramid:
    • Structure: This type of pyramid is characteristic of most terrestrial ecosystems. It features a broad base representing primary producers, with subsequent trophic levels progressively decreasing in size as one moves upwards.
    • Distribution:
      • Primary Producers: Occupying the base, the biomass of autotrophs or primary producers is at its maximum in this pyramid.
      • Primary Consumers: Positioned above the producers, their biomass is lesser in comparison.
      • Secondary Consumers: Their biomass is even lower than that of primary consumers.
      • Higher Trophic Levels: As one ascends the pyramid, the biomass continues to diminish, resulting in a minimal biomass at the apex.
  2. Inverted Pyramid:
    • Structure: Predominantly observed in many aquatic ecosystems, this pyramid exhibits an inverted shape.
    • Distribution:
      • Primary Producers: The base is relatively narrow, consisting of phytoplankton. These microscopic organisms have the ability to reproduce and multiply rapidly, leading to a swift turnover.
      • Consumers: As one moves up the pyramid, the biomass of consumers consistently surpasses that of the producers, giving the pyramid its inverted appearance.

While the upward pyramid is a reflection of the typical terrestrial ecosystem structure, the inverted pyramid underscores the unique dynamics of aquatic ecosystems, especially where rapid reproduction of primary producers is observed. Both types provide valuable insights into the distribution of organic matter and energy flow within different ecosystems.

Inverted Pyramid of biomass
Inverted Pyramid of biomass

Limitations of Pyramid of Biomass

The Pyramid of Biomass is a valuable tool in ecological studies, providing a visual representation of the distribution of biomass across different trophic levels. However, like all models, it has its limitations:

  1. Overestimation of Energy: A significant limitation of the biomass pyramid is its potential to overrepresent the energy available at each trophic level. The pyramid might suggest that there is more energy present than what is genuinely accessible for the next trophic level.
  2. Inclusion of Non-transferable Biomass: When assessing organisms, the entire biomass, including parts that are not consumed or transferred to the next trophic level, is considered. For instance, when humans consume animals, the bone mass is included in the biomass calculation. However, these bones are not utilized by the subsequent trophic level, leading to an overestimation of available biomass.
  3. Potential for Misinterpretation: The inclusion of non-transferable components can lead to misconceptions about the actual energy flow and biomass transfer within an ecosystem.
  4. Not Fully Representative: While the biomass pyramid offers insights into the distribution of organic matter, it might not capture the nuances of energy flow and consumption patterns in intricate ecosystems.

Despite these limitations, the Pyramid of Biomass remains a crucial instrument in ecological research. It aids in identifying imbalances in ecosystems and offers a foundational understanding of energy distribution across trophic levels. However, it is essential to interpret its data with a discerning eye, considering the aforementioned constraints.


Examples of Biomass Pyramid

A biomass pyramid illustrates the efficiency of energy transfer across all trophic levels. It might be upright or upside down. In marine ecosystems, biomass pyramids are inverted.

To comprehend the difference, let’s compare the biomass pyramids of terrestrial and marine ecosystems.


Biomass Pyramid of a Grassland Ecosystem

The Grassland Ecosystem, characterized by vast stretches of grasses, presents a distinct biomass pyramid that is upright in nature. This pyramid provides a structured representation of the distribution of biomass across various trophic levels. Here’s a detailed breakdown:

  1. Primary Producers – Grasses:
    • Position: Forming the base of the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Grasses possess the highest biomass in this ecosystem due to their extensive coverage and density.
    • Role: They serve as the primary source of energy and nutrients for the subsequent trophic levels.
  2. Primary Consumers – Herbivores:
    • Examples: Rabbits, rats, and other grass-eating animals.
    • Position: Situated above the grasses in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Their combined biomass is lower than that of the grasses, as they rely on consuming these primary producers for sustenance.
  3. Secondary Consumers:
    • Examples: Lizards, snakes, owls, etc.
    • Position: Occupying the next level in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Their biomass is further reduced compared to primary consumers. These organisms prey on herbivores, deriving their energy from them.
  4. Tertiary Consumers:
    • Examples: Eagles and other apex predators.
    • Position: Residing at the apex of the pyramid.
    • Biomass: They have the least biomass in the ecosystem, as they are fewer in number and rely on preying on secondary consumers.

The sequential decrease in biomass from the base to the apex of the pyramid is a result of energy transfer limitations. As one moves up the trophic levels, only a fraction of the energy is transferred, leading to a reduced biomass at higher levels. This pattern is a hallmark of the upright biomass pyramid observed in grassland ecosystems, reflecting the flow of energy and the distribution of organic matter within this habitat.

Biomass Pyramid of a Tree Ecosystem

In ecological studies, the biomass pyramid serves as a more accurate representation of energy flow within an ecosystem than the number pyramid. This distinction becomes particularly evident in a tree ecosystem, where the distribution of organisms and their biomass can vary significantly.

  1. Primary Producers – Oak Tree:
    • Position: Constituting the base of the pyramid.
    • Biomass: The oak tree, being a large and long-lived organism, holds the maximum biomass in this ecosystem.
    • Role: As the primary producer, the oak tree provides nutrients and energy to the subsequent trophic levels.
  2. Primary Consumers – Caterpillars and Insects:
    • Position: Residing above the oak tree in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Despite their small individual size, the collective biomass of the numerous insects and caterpillars feeding on the oak tree is substantial, though still less than that of the tree itself.
    • Role: These organisms feed on the oak tree, extracting nutrients and energy.
  3. Secondary Consumers – Woodpeckers:
    • Position: Occupying the next level in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Woodpeckers have a lower biomass compared to the insects they feed on, as they are fewer in number.
    • Role: Woodpeckers prey on caterpillars and insects, deriving their sustenance from these primary consumers.

The tree ecosystem showcases the intricacies of energy flow and biomass distribution. While a single oak tree can support hundreds of insects, these insects are then consumed by a smaller number of predators, such as woodpeckers. This results in an upright biomass pyramid, where the base holds the most biomass, decreasing progressively at higher trophic levels. This structure underscores the efficiency and dynamics of energy transfer within the tree ecosystem.

Biomass Pyramid of a Marine Ecosystem

In the vast expanse of marine ecosystems, the distribution of biomass across various trophic levels presents a unique configuration, often characterized as an inverted biomass pyramid. This structure stands in contrast to the typical upright pyramids observed in terrestrial ecosystems.

  1. Primary Producers – Phytoplanktons:
    • Position: Forming the base of the marine biomass pyramid.
    • Biomass: Despite being the foundational trophic level, phytoplanktons possess a relatively lower biomass compared to the subsequent levels.
    • Role: These microscopic organisms harness sunlight to produce energy through photosynthesis, serving as the primary energy source for the marine food web.
  2. Primary Consumers – Zooplanktons:
    • Position: Situated above the phytoplanktons in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Zooplanktons, though tiny, collectively exhibit a biomass greater than that of phytoplanktons.
    • Role: These microscopic animals feed on phytoplanktons, channeling the energy upwards in the food chain.
  3. Secondary Consumers – Small Fish:
    • Position: Occupying the next tier in the pyramid.
    • Biomass: Small fish, being more substantial in size and number, hold a biomass greater than zooplanktons.
    • Role: These fish primarily feed on zooplanktons, acting as a bridge between the microscopic world and larger marine predators.
  4. Tertiary Consumers – Large Fish:
    • Position: At the apex of the marine biomass pyramid.
    • Biomass: Large fish, being the top predators, possess the maximum biomass in this ecosystem.
    • Role: Predominantly feeding on smaller fish, they regulate the population dynamics within the marine food web.

The inverted nature of the marine biomass pyramid can be attributed to the rapid reproduction rates and short lifespans of phytoplanktons. Even though their biomass might appear limited at any given moment, their ability to reproduce swiftly ensures a consistent energy supply to higher trophic levels. This dynamic balance ensures the sustenance and vitality of marine ecosystems.

What is the difference between upright and inverted pyramid of biomass?

FeatureUpright Pyramid of BiomassInverted Pyramid of Biomass
ShapeNarrow at the top and broad at the bottomBroad at the top and narrow at the bottom
Proportion of BiomassMore biomass at the bottom than at the topMore biomass at the top than at the bottom
Trophic LevelsHigher trophic levels are at the topHigher trophic levels are at the bottom
Food ChainLong food chain with few organisms at higher levelsShort food chain with many organisms at higher levels
EcosystemStable and balanced ecosystemDisturbed or degraded ecosystem

An upright pyramid of biomass represents a stable and balanced ecosystem, where there is a large amount of primary producers (plants), a smaller amount of primary consumers (herbivores), and an even smaller number of secondary and tertiary consumers (carnivores). In contrast, an inverted pyramid of biomass occurs in disturbed or degraded ecosystems where there are fewer primary producers and a higher number of primary consumers, leading to an imbalance in the food chain.

What is the importance of biomass pyramid?

The biomass pyramid is an important tool for visualizing and understanding the distribution of energy and matter in an ecosystem. It provides insight into the relationship between different trophic levels and helps to understand the flow of energy and nutrients through the food chain.

Some of the key benefits of using a biomass pyramid include:

  1. Ecological balance: The biomass pyramid provides a graphical representation of the balance of an ecosystem, making it easier to identify imbalances or disruptions.
  2. Biodiversity: The biomass pyramid helps to understand the diversity of species in an ecosystem and the impact that changes in one species can have on the entire ecosystem.
  3. Food web dynamics: By illustrating the flow of energy through an ecosystem, the biomass pyramid helps to understand the dynamics of the food web, including the relationships between predators and prey and the roles of decomposers.
  4. Ecosystem health: The biomass pyramid provides a snapshot of the health of an ecosystem, as changes in the distribution of biomass can indicate changes in the overall health of the ecosystem.

Overall, the biomass pyramid is an important tool for ecologists and environmental scientists, as it provides valuable insights into the functioning of ecosystems and helps to inform conservation and management strategies.

Quiz Exercise


What does a pyramid of biomass represent?

A pyramid of biomass represents the distribution of biomass or the amount of living matter within an ecosystem at different trophic levels. It is typically depicted as a triangular diagram, with producers (e.g. plants) at the bottom and higher trophic levels (e.g. herbivores, carnivores) successively at the upper levels. The size of each level represents the amount of biomass present in that trophic level. This diagram helps to visualize the flow of energy and nutrients in an ecosystem.

What does a biomass pyramid show?

A biomass pyramid shows the amount of living biological material (biomass) present at each trophic level of an ecosystem. It is usually represented as a triangular diagram, with the base of the pyramid representing the primary producers (e.g. plants) that form the foundation of the food chain. The higher the trophic level, the smaller the biomass, as energy is lost at each step of the food chain. The pyramid shape illustrates the idea that there is a decrease in the amount of energy available at each successive trophic level, starting from the primary producers at the base and moving up to the top predators at the apex.

Which units are used in a pyramid of biomass?

In a pyramid of biomass, the units used are typically units of mass or weight, such as grams (g), kilograms (kg), or metric tons (t). The unit of measurement is chosen based on the scale of the ecosystem being studied, as well as the amount of biomass present at each trophic level. The choice of unit may also depend on the purpose of the study and the level of detail desired. Regardless of the units used, the important aspect of a biomass pyramid is the relative comparison of the biomass present at each trophic level, not the absolute values.

Why is pyramid of biomass upright?

The pyramid of biomass is usually depicted as an upright triangle because it represents the decrease in biomass as you move up the trophic levels in an ecosystem. The base of the pyramid represents the primary producers, such as plants, which have the largest biomass because they are able to convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis. As you move up the pyramid to higher trophic levels, such as herbivores and carnivores, there is a decrease in biomass because energy is lost at each step in the food chain due to processes such as respiration and waste production. The upright orientation of the pyramid emphasizes the concept of a decrease in the amount of available energy as you move up the food chain.

Which ecosystem will the pyramid of biomass be inverted?

The pyramid of biomass will be inverted in ecosystems where there is an abundance of primary consumers, leading to a shortage of primary producers. This usually occurs in disturbed or degraded ecosystems where the balance of the food chain has been disrupted. In such cases, decomposers and detritivores also increase in numbers, further contributing to the inversion of the pyramid.

What are the 2 types of biomass pyramid?

Upright Pyramid
Inverted Pyramid

What is a biomass pyramid?

A biomass pyramid represents the total mass of living organisms at each trophic level in an ecosystem.

How is the biomass pyramid different from the energy pyramid?

While a biomass pyramid represents the mass of living organisms at each trophic level, an energy pyramid depicts the flow of energy from one trophic level to the next.

Why is the biomass pyramid for marine ecosystems often inverted?

In marine ecosystems, primary producers like phytoplankton have a lower biomass but reproduce rapidly, allowing them to support a larger biomass of consumers.

How is biomass measured?

Biomass is typically measured in terms of dry weight in grams or calories per unit area.

What is the significance of the 10% energy transfer rule in ecosystems?

Only about 10% of the energy from one trophic level is transferred to the next. The rest is used for metabolic processes or lost as heat.

Why are there fewer top predators in an ecosystem?

Due to the 10% energy transfer rule, there’s less available energy at higher trophic levels, supporting fewer organisms.

What is the difference between species biomass and community biomass?

Species biomass refers to the biomass of a specific species in an ecosystem, while community biomass is the total biomass of all species in a particular community.

Why is the biomass pyramid for terrestrial ecosystems typically upright?

In terrestrial ecosystems, primary producers like plants have a large biomass, which decreases as you move up to herbivores and then to carnivores.

Can a biomass pyramid ever be straight or uniform across trophic levels?

It’s rare, but in some specific conditions or ecosystems, the biomass might be relatively equal across trophic levels.

How does human activity impact biomass pyramids?

Human activities like deforestation, overfishing, and pollution can disrupt the balance of ecosystems, leading to changes in the structure of biomass pyramids.


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