Zoologists specifically study animals to learn more about them and the habitats they live in. As part of their jobs, zoologists may collect specimens of an animal’s food, fur, blood, tissues, or waste for further analysis, study animal behavior such as inter-species interactions, breeding routines, diseases, and migration patterns and keep detailed logs of these observations, conduct experiments either in the wild or under controlled laboratory conditions, study the effects that humans are having on animals and their habitats, and document wildlife populations and track how they fluctuate over time.
Like other scientists, zoologist typically present their findings at scholarly conferences or by publications in scientific journals, and they may also serve as consultants to businesses, governments and special interest groups on the topic of animal management and conservation.
Most zoologists work as members of research teams made up of other scientists and technicians. For example, zoologists may work with environmental scientists and agricultural biologists to monitor the effects of crop pesticides on bird populations.
Types of Zoologists
The field of zoology is a very broad one, and there are 9 general areas of zoology that you can specialize in. Some of these concentrate on specific species of animals, like ornithologists who study birds, ichthyologists who study fish, herpetologists who study amphibians and reptiles, entomologists who study insects, and mammalogists who study mammals.
Other specializations focus on all the animals who live in a particular habitat, like limnologists who study freshwater animals, and marine biologists who focus on animals that live in saltwater.
Finally, evolutionary biologists are interested in determining how animals originated and how their inherited characteristics have changed over the years. And ecologists want to learn more about the ecosystem as a whole, and focus on discovering the complex and fascinating ways in which animals interact with the surrounding environment.
No matter what their area of specialization, zoologists will likely use computer programs like modeling software and geographic information systems to track animal behavior patterns, estimate animal populations, and predict the spread of threats like diseases and invasive species that can affect an animal or its natural habitat.
Zoologists from all specialties also conduct research by performing a variety of scientific experiments and tests, like taking blood samples to check for viral infections or the presence of a genetic mutation in an animal population. And many zoologists are animal advocates, working to increase public knowledge and understanding through public conferences and press releases, or consulting with government officials to develop effective wildlife management plans and conservation protocols so that animals and their environments are protected.
Although zoologists may spend time indoors in laboratories and offices, many of them also spend a good deal of time in the outdoors, studying animals in their natural habitat and documenting their observations. In fact, zoologists can be found conducting their research all over the world, even in the most remote locations and in all sorts of weather.
Training to be a Zoologist
It is possible to get an entry-level zoology job with just a bachelor’s degree, and there are a number of colleges that offer a zoology major, or a closely related one like wildlife biology or ecology. In addition to basic science courses in related disciplines like chemistry and physics, typical zoology undergraduate courses include general topics like cellular biology, wildlife biology, anatomy, ecology, and wildlife management.
In many cases students can also take specialized courses in a particular zoology area like mammalogy or ichthyology. And zoology students should also take mathematics, statistics, and computer science classes since their work will likely involve a considerable amount of complex data analysis, as well as the use of advanced computer modeling software.
As in other professions, zoologists will generally have both more independence and more responsibilities as they gain experience in their field. However, in order to compete for top-level jobs, most zoologists will need at least a master’s degree. And a Ph.D. is a requirement for anyone who is serious about doing independent work with their own research team, or following a career as a university lecturer or researcher.
And even for zoologists who have received their Ph.D., competition for jobs is likely to be very intense during the next few years since zoology positions are expected to grow by only 7% during the period from 2010 to 2020 – this is only half of the 14% growth predicted for all professions.
On the one hand, zoologists will definitely be needed to study phenomena like human population growth, suburban sprawl, industrial pollution, climate change, and other issues that impact animals and their environment. But on the other, funding for government and academic research positions to investigate these issues is very likely to be reduced or even eliminated in the coming years, thereby severely limiting the number of job openings available.