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Biomass, in ecology, is the mass of living biological organisms in a given area or ecosystem at a given time. Biomass can refer to species biomass, which is the mass of one or more species, or to community biomass, which is the mass of all species in the community. It can include microorganisms, plants or animals. The mass can be expressed as the average mass per unit area, or as the total mass in the community.
How biomass is measured depends on why it is being measured. Sometimes the biomass is regarded as the natural mass of organisms in situ, just as they are. For example, in a salmon fishery, the salmon biomass might be regarded as the total wet weight the salmon would have if they were taken out of the water. In other contexts, biomass can be measured in terms of the dried organic mass, so perhaps only 30% of the actual weight might count, the rest being water. For other purposes, only biological tissues count, and teeth, bones and shells are excluded.
In stricter scientific applications, biomass is measured as the mass of organically bound carbon (C) that is present. Apart from bacteria, the total live biomass on earth is about 560 billion tonnes C, and the total annual primary production of biomass is just over 100 billion tonnes C/yr. However, the total live biomass of bacteria may exceed that of plants and animals.
An ecological pyramid provides a snapshot in time of an ecological community.
The bottom of the pyramid represents the primary producers (autotrophs). The primary producers take energy from the environment in the form of sunlight or inorganic chemicals and use it to create energy-rich molecules such as carbohydrates. This mechanism is called primary production. The pyramid then proceeds through the various trophic levels to the apex predators at the top.
When energy is transferred from one trophic level to the next, typically only ten percent is used to build new biomass. The remaining ninety percent goes to metabolic processes or is dissipated as heat. This energy loss means that productivity pyramids are never inverted, and generally limits food chains to about six levels. However, in oceans, biomass pyramids can be wholly or partially inverted, with more biomass at higher levels.
Terrestrial biomass generally decreases markedly at each higher trophic level (plants, herbivores, carnivores). Examples of terrestrial producers are grasses, trees and shrubs. These have a much higher biomass than the animals that consume them, such as deer, zebras and insects. The level with the least biomass are the highest predators in the food chain, such as foxes and eagles.
In a temperate grassland, grasses and other plants are the primary producers at the bottom of the pyramid. Then come the primary consumers, grasshoppers, voles and bison, followed by the secondary consumers, shrews, hawks and small cats, and finally the tertiary consumers, large cats and wolves. The biomass pyramid is not inverted, but decreases markedly at each higher level.
Ocean biomass, in a reversal of terrestrial biomass, can increase at higher trophic levels. In the ocean, the food chain typically starts with phytoplankton, and follows the course:
Phytoplankton → zooplankton → predatory zooplankton → filter feeders → predatory fish
Phytoplankton are the main primary producers at the bottom of the marine food chain. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis to convert inorganic carbon into protoplasm. They are then consumed by microscopic animals called zooplankton.
In turn, smaller zooplankton are consumed both by larger predatory zooplankters, such as krill, and by forage fish, which are small schooling filter feeding fish. This makes up the third level in the food chain.
Apex predators, such as orcas which can consume seals and shortfin mako sharks which can consume swordfish, make up the fifth trophic level. Baleen whales can consume zooplankton and krill directly, leading to a food chain with only three or four trophic levels.
Marine environments can have inverted biomass pyramids. In particular, the biomass of consumers (copepods, krill, shrimp, forage fish) is larger than the biomass of primary producers. This happens because the ocean primary producers are tiny phytoplankton which grow and reproduce rapidly, so a small mass can have a fast rate of primary production. In contrast, terrestrial primary producers grow and reproduce slowly.
There is an exception with cyanobacteria. Marine cyanobacteria are the smallest known photosynthetic organisms; the smallest of all, Prochlorococcus, is just 0.5 to 0.8 micrometres across. Prochlorococcus is possibly the most plentiful species on Earth: a single millilitre of surface seawater may contain 100,000 cells or more. Worldwide, there are estimated to be several octillion (~1027) individuals. Prochlorococcus is ubiquitous between 40°N and 40°S and dominates in the oligotrophic (nutrient poor) regions of the oceans. The bacterium accounts for an estimated 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, and forms part of the base of the ocean food chain.
There are typically 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water. In all, it has been estimated that there are about five million trillion trillion, or 5 × 1030 (5 nonillion) bacteria on Earth with a total biomass equaling that of plants. Some researchers believe the total biomass of bacteria exceeds that of all plants and animals.
Estimates for the global biomass of species and specie groups are not always consistent across the literature. Apart from bacteria, the total global biomass has been estimated at about 560 billion tonnes C. Most of this biomass is found on land, with only 5 to 10 billion tonnes C found in the oceans. On land there is about 1,000 times more plant biomass (phytomass) than animal biomass (zoomass). About 18% of this plant biomass is eaten by the land animals. However in the ocean the animal biomass is nearly 30 times larger than the plant biomass. Most ocean plant biomass is eaten by the ocean animals.
|name||number of species||date of estimate||individual count||mean living weight of individual||percent biomass (dried)||total number of carbon atoms||global dry biomass in million tonnes||global wet (fresh) biomass in million tonnes|
3.5 x 1036 
107 - 108 billion 
3 x 10−6kg
4.7 x 1035
7.8 x 1014
10-6 - 10−9 kg
4–6 x 1030 cells
1.76-2.76 x 1040 
Humans comprise about 100 million tonnes of the Earth's dry biomass, domesticated animals about 700 million tonnes, and crops about 2 billion tonnes. The most successful animal species, in terms of biomass, may well be Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, with a fresh biomass approaching 500 million tonnes, although domestic cattle may also reach these immense figures. However, as a group, the small aquatic crustaceans called copepods may form the largest animal biomass on earth. A 2009 paper in Science estimates, for the first time, the total world fish biomass as somewhere between 0.8 and 2.0 billion tonnes. It has been estimated that about 1% of the global biomass is due to phytoplankton, and a staggering 25% is due to fungi.
Grasses, trees and shrubs have a much higher biomass than the animals that consume them
The total biomass of bacteria may equal that of plants.
It has been claimed that fungi make up 25% of the global biomass
Net primary production is the rate at which new biomass is generated, mainly due to photosynthesis. Global primary production can be estimated from satellite observations. Satellites scan the normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) over terrestrial habitats, and scan sea-surface chlorophyll levels over oceans. This results in 56.4 billion tonnes C/yr (53.8%), for terrestrial primary production, and 48.5 billion tonnes C/yr for oceanic primary production. Thus, the total photoautotrophic primary production for the Earth is about 104.9 billion tonnes C/yr. This translates to about 426 gC/m²/yr for land production (excluding areas with permanent ice cover), and 140 gC/m²/yr for the oceans.
However, there is a much more significant difference in standing stocks—while accounting for almost half of total annual production, oceanic autotrophs account for only about 0.2% of the total biomass. Autotrophs may have the highest global proportion of biomass, but they are closely rivaled or surpassed by microbes.
Some global producers of biomass in order of productivity rates are
(billion tonnes C/yr)
|Swamps and Marshes||2,500|||
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