Food Web

Food Web

A food web consists of all the food chains in a single ecosystem.


3 - 12+


Biology, Ecology

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...
Leveled by
Selected text level

food web is made up of all the food chains in a single ecosystem. Each living thing in an ecosystem belongs to many food chains. A food chain is a path that energy takes through a certain ecosystem.

Trophic Levels

Organisms in food webs are grouped into categories called trophic levels.


Producers make up the first trophic level. Producers, also known as autotrophs, make their own food and do not depend on any other organism for nutrition. Most autotrophs use photosynthesis to create food from sunlightcarbon dioxide, and water.

Plants are the most familiar type of autotroph, but there are many other kinds. Algae are autotrophic. Some types of bacteria are autotrophs. For example, bacteria living in active volcanoes use sulfur, not carbon dioxide, to produce their own food. This process is called chemosynthesis.


The next trophic levels are made up of animals that eat producers. These organisms are called consumers. Consumers can be carnivores or omnivores.

Primary consumers are herbivores, which eat plants, algae, and other producers. In a grassland ecosystem, deer, mice, and even elephants are herbivores. They eat grasses, shrubs, and trees. In a desert ecosystem, a mouse that eats seeds and fruits is a primary consumer. In an ocean ecosystem, many types of fish and turtles are herbivores that eat algae and seagrass.

Secondary consumers eat herbivores. They are at the third trophic level. In a desert ecosystem, a secondary consumer may be a snake that eats a mouse. In underwater kelp forests, sea otters are secondary consumers that hunt sea urchins.

The next level is made up of tertiary consumers that eat secondary consumers. In the desert ecosystem, an owl or eagle may prey on a snake.

Top predators, also called apex predators, eat other consumers. Lions are apex predators in the grassland ecosystem. In the ocean, fish such as the great white shark are apex predators. In the desert, bobcats and mountain lions are top predators.

Detritivores and Decomposers

Detritivores and decomposers make up the last part of food chains. Detritivores are organisms that eat nonliving plant and animal remains. For example, scavengers such as vultures eat dead animals.

Decomposers, like fungi and bacteria, complete the food chain by turning organic waste, such as decaying plants, into inorganic materials, such as nutrient-rich soil.

For example, grass in a forest clearing produces its own food through photosynthesis. A rabbit eats the grass and then a fox eats the rabbit. When the fox dies, decomposers such as worms and mushrooms break down its body, returning it to the soil where it provides nutrients for plants like grass.


Food webs are defined by their biomass—the energy in living organisms. Autotrophs, the producers in a food web, convert the sun's energy into biomass. Biomass decreases with each trophic level. There is always more biomass in lower trophic levels than in higher ones.

Because biomass decreases with each trophic level, there are always more autotrophs than herbivores in a healthy food web. There are more herbivores than carnivores.

A healthy food web has an abundance of autotrophs, many herbivores, and relatively few carnivores and omnivores. This balance helps the ecosystem maintain and recycle biomass.

Every link in a food web is connected to at least two others. When one link is threatened, other links are weakened or stressed and the ecosystem's biomass declines.

The loss of plant life usually leads to a decline in the herbivore population. Plants can disappear due to drought, disease, or human activity. Forests are cut down to provide lumber for construction. Grasslands are paved over for shopping malls or parking lots.


Toxic chemicals increase with each level in the food web.

When an herbivore eats a plant or other autotroph that is covered in pesticides, for example, those pesticides are stored in the animal's fat. When a carnivore eats several of these herbivores, it takes in the pesticide chemicals stored in its prey. This process is called bioaccumulation.

Bioaccumulation happens in marine ecosystems too. Runoff from urban areas or farms can be full of pollutants. Tiny producers such as algae, bacteria, and seagrass absorb minute amounts of these pollutants. Primary consumers, such as sea turtles and fish, eat the seagrass. Predators, such as sharks or tuna, eat the fish. By the time people eat the tuna, it may have a large amount of bioaccumulated toxins in its body.

A pesticide called DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was a major reason for the decline of the bald eagle. In the 1940s and 1950s, DDT was used to kill insects that spread diseases. DDT built up in the soil and water. Worms, grasses, algae and fish took in the DDT. As a consequence, eagles and other apex predators preyed on fish and small mammals that were poisoned with DDT.

Birds with high amounts of DDT in their bodies lay eggs with extremely thin shells. These shells would often break before the baby birds were ready to hatch. The bald eagle population declined.

Today, the use of DDT has been restricted. Food webs, which include the bald eagle, have recovered in most parts of the country.

Fast Fact

Lost Energy
Biomass shrinks with each trophic level. That is because between 80% and 90% of an organism's energy, or biomass, is lost as heat or waste. A predator consumes only the remaining biomass.

Fast Fact

A Million to One
Marine food webs are usually longer than terrestrial food webs. Scientists estimate that if there are a million producers (algae, phytoplankton, and sea grass) in a food web, there may only be 10,000 herbivores. Such a food web may support 100 secondary consumers, such as tuna. All these organisms support only one apex predator, such as a person.

Fast Fact

Out for Blood
One of the earliest descriptions of food webs was given by the scientist Al-Jahiz, working in Baghdad, Iraq, in the early 800s. Al-Jahiz wrote about mosquitoes preying on the blood of elephants and hippos. Al-Jahiz understood that although mosquitoes preyed on other animals, they were also prey to animals such as flies and small birds.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources