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What They Do

Insider Info

An ecologist studies life. The basic idea of ecology is that all life on the planet is connected. Everything on Earth fits together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. That includes land, water, trees, plants and animals.

While biologists, geographers, botanists and oceanographers each study their own pieces of the puzzle, the ecologist looks at how they all fit together. These specialized scientists study how organisms affect each other and their environment.

An ecologist does research to find out how our ecosystems work. How does the temperature of a stream affect tadpoles living in the water? How do tadpoles change the water? What effect does this have on the rodents that drink from that stream? Will their numbers change?

How would that affect the insects and seed supply the rodents eat? What will the changes in insect and seed numbers do to the trees? And what happens when we come on the scene with our bulldozers, chainsaws and pollution?

Ecology is concerned with the relationships between organisms and their past, present and future environments. If tadpoles can affect trees simply by excreting in the water, you can imagine what humans do to our environment.

We often change our surroundings rather than fit in to them. Ecologists try to find out how much and what kind of impact human activity is having on a particular organism or ecosystem.

Ecologists have many areas of specialty. Some study elephants, others study algae. Some study the chemical contents of rivers and lakes while others study trees.

In general, there are three main areas of ecology:

Biological ecology includes wildlife ecology, wetland ecology, marine ecology and botany.

Physical or chemical ecology includes soil science, meteorology and geology.

Finally, there is human ecology, including socio-economic and ecological anthropology.

"There can be a great deal of cross-talk and interaction between these disciplines," says Steven Towers. He is the principal ecologist for an ecological research company.

Ecologists work in a variety of areas. They may teach ecology at colleges and universities. They may do research for the government or private industry, like forestry or mining companies.

Some ecologists have their own consulting and research firms. They are contracted to do impact studies and develop services or products for ecosystems.

The average day is spent doing research. An ecologist may sit in the lab one day and travel to a remote field site the next. Ecologists may be exposed to hazardous chemicals or travel in dangerous areas. Many ecological scientists, however, work in the relative safety of an office or lab.

But early in their careers, ecologists may expect to work all kinds of hours and in all kinds of places. Depending on their subject of study, they could find themselves in the middle of the desert facing inhuman temperatures.

Or they might be underwater at 5 a.m. studying seaweed. Then again, they might spend days in the mountains studying trees. It all depends on what the ecologist specializes in.

As ecologists gain more experience in a specialty, their jobs can become more administrative. That means they spend less time in the field. If much of your work is done in a lab or office, physical mobility limitations may not hinder you. However, this may pose challenges in research involving a lot of movement in natural environments.

At a Glance

Study how all life interacts

  • A lot of your time will be spent in research
  • Global warming is a hot topic
  • For the best jobs and research spots, a PhD is a big help


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