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