5 Ways to Make Trophic Levels A More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena

Introduction Trophic Levels

Earth is the only planet we know of with life because of the extraordinary way that nature has created it. The placement of the various living organisms—all of which are interdependent and interlinked—is truly impressive. All living organisms require a basic life-sustaining fuel not only to run their physiological metabolism but also to carry out other energy-requiring processes like migration, reproduction, survival tactics or mechanisms, and much more. So, the energy for all this comes from food. And this forms the basis of today’s discussion.

The life journeys of different organisms are knitted together in the form of food chains, food webs, trophic pyramids, and food cycles. All the different organisms occupy different levels of these cycles and webs called ‘trophic levels.

When students are first introduced to this topic in high school, they find it quite interesting. However, children tend to lose interest as professors and educators go into the complexities of the subject and have been seen to withdraw their interest and curiosity. 

Since this subject is the foundation of ecology, students must have a deeper comprehension of it and a distinct perspective. 

That’s why in this article, we try to highlight all the issues encountered by students when studying trophic levels. Educators can pay special attention to these issues and develop issue-driven lectures for their next class. To make that process simple, we, at Labster, also provide a comprehensive list of practical solutions that you can use. By the end, we’ll also share why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why Trophic Levels can be tricky to teach or learn

There are 3 reasons why students dread the topic of Trophic Levels. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

  1. Lack of basic concept clarity

Students with weak concepts of ecological science often find it difficult to understand this topic. An inability to differentiate between different modes of nutrition like autotrophic, heterotrophic, and mixotrophic can land students in a position where they can’t describe the correct placement (in the correct trophic level) of different living organisms. Educators may find it frustrating that students don't know if a horse relies on an autotrophic or heterotrophic form of eating, yet many students aren't very confident in those fundamentals.

2. Difficulty in the visualization of food chains, webs, and cycles

Since food chains and webs are complex, intertwined networks of multiple organisms, most students find it hard to grasp the basic idea from mere textual classroom teaching. The lack of imagery options and illustrations makes the conventional lessons on trophic levels not just boring but also hard to follow. Students are unable to create a mind map that connects several trophic levels and establishes a chain between producers, consumers, and decomposers.

3. Failure to recognize its value in one’s life

Often students also complain about the lack of utility and real-world application of this topic. While we understand that the topic is theoretical and of no direct commercial or monetary benefit to students, teachers must enlighten them about the importance of the same. Students dispute the value of this system and trophic levels since they are unaware of their placement at just one trophic level out of many in the natural system.

5 ways to make Trophic Levels a more approachable topic to understand

To address the blocks encountered while teaching the topic of Trophic Levels, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Build strong foundations in Ecology subject

This is our primary advice to solve 50% of the problems faced by your students. If students are taught the basics of Ecology engagingly and interactively, the lessons can turn out more utilizable and applicable as they advance towards complex notions of the subject. We recommend some of the basic topics that need due attention and emphasis in both high school and university classes.

  1. Talking about “different modes of nutrition” is a stretch. Offer  them some National Geographic documentaries and Discovery channel videos. Build their interest in the subject of Ecology. As they see plants growing in the soil of hostile habitats like the Atacama Desert (one of the driest places on Earth), they’ll understand the significance of the autotrophic (self-food synthesizing capability) behavior of plants. Or when they see that scientists have recently identified a rare group of fungi that eats radioactive radiation and grows in Chernobyl (the place of the nuclear disaster or 1986) where no life exists after the nuclear mishap, they’ll understand how powerful autotrophy is! Similarly, make them understand the concepts of heterotrophic and mixotrophic modes of nutrition.
  2. Talk about the “difference between food chains and food webs”. Students often misinterpret that 2 food chains put together constitute a food web. But it isn’t so. Explain to them how different types of species can coexist at a certain trophic level, for example, both cows and deer are herbivores and coexist at the same trophic level. Although cows are often domesticated and deer are more abundant in the wild if cows are released into the wild, will lions pursue exclusively deer, or will cows have an equal chance of being taken down? (Answer: Lion will hunt irrespective of the species as both cow and deer fulfill its nutritional requirement as carnivory is the basic ‘
  3. “feeding strategy” of lions.) Your students will be compelled to reflect as a result of this situation-based introspective learning, which will strengthen the concepts in their minds.

You can do the same with the other topics so that students will be interested in learning the fundamental idea that underlies the intricate ecological procedures.

Trophic levels simulation

Figure: A snippet from Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation from Labster. The simulation is available for High School and University/College courses.

2. Help them recognize the value of ecological structures

Students frequently perceive the study of trophic levels to be pointless and abstract because they are unaware of the fact that humans are but one species among many in the global food chain. It becomes the primary duty of educators to break this bubble in which some students live. As responsible citizens of Mother Earth, it’s of prime significance that we value the diversity of life on this planet. We recommend educators introduce students to shows like Man-versus-Wild and Survivorman. In the luxury of their homes, many students lose sight of the reality that they make up just one trophic level of the entire food chain and that, if abandoned in the wild, their ability to survive depends on how well-versed they are in the ecological system.

Figure:An interactive snippet showing the different trophic levels where crocodiles and lions are placed above zebra. The Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation is provided by Labster. The simulation is available for High School and University/College courses.

3. Make the classes more interactive with infographics, illustrations, and more tools

Understandably, following the ‘energy flows between different trophic levels’ could be hard with no visual tools in use. Even the most imaginative students can fall short in this activity as the energy flow in food webs is extremely complex. This demonstrates the critical need for visualization tools for this specific issue. Educators find it hard to resolve this issue due to the dearth of reliable infographics and illustrations in the public domain. Since the premise of ecosystem structure is dependent on a clear understanding of energy flow, educators can go the extra mile to bring the best tools to class. Search for good animations, video content, interactive simulations, and engaging games where students can actively participate in the learning process (though we know your time is limited!). You can alternatively use the Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation from Labster.

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4. Engage in exceptional topics that can refine their thinking skills

Gather interesting examples of organisms that occupy different trophic levels in the global food chains. And conduct classroom discussions related to the same. We provide some interesting examples that need active thinking.

  1. At which trophic level will you place the parasitic plants like Dodder Plant (Cuscuta spp.)? Will it be a producer or consumer? Are parasites autotrophic or heterotrophic? Making your students brainstorm can help them develop a scientific aptitude and research temperament that are essential aspects of aspiring scientists. 
  2. How well do they understand the concept of prey-predator or host-parasite? How do prey and host try to evade predators and parasites respectively? Are they successful in their attempts? Or do they co-evolve? What is co-evolution? This is another example where the importance of co-evolution is highlighted in the consecutive trophic levels. (Because if the prey and host evade the traps of predators and parasites respectively, the ecological food pyramids will collapse to shatters.)

We believe these examples will be useful in your class and you’ll endeavor to design more such examples for your students.

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Figure: A snippet from Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation by Labster. The simulation is available for High School and University/College courses.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

The traditional teachings on Trophic Levels taught in high schools can sometimes not be seen as an intriguing one. We require more ecologists in the future as the globe changes so they can comprehend ecological problems and genuinely work to maintain the Earth habitable for all life forms.

Because there aren't enough resources to make it easier for teachers to teach about trophic levels in their classes, we've developed interactive simulations to come to your rescue. Your lecture delivery will be made easier by Labster’s Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation

Since students can access picture and video alternatives, you may make more insightful points. As a cherry on top, we pull through by using our gamification tools. Our virtual learning platform uses this method of interactive, immersive instruction to strengthen the fundamental concepts for future scientists in the making.  

You can learn more about the Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation from Labster here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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Figure: A snippet showing the gamification element of the Trophic Levels: Grazer vs. predator simulation from Labster. The simulation is available for High School and University/College courses.

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