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Trying to understand an ecosystem is no easy task. Since humans, animals and plants are in steady interaction with each other, they are all constantly changing aspects of the environment, making the study of ecology more and more in-depth everyday. Interactions among all species could have a number of positive and negative effects. For example, upon return from a trip in a tropical country, you notice a gecko (native to that country) jump out of your suitcase into your living room. How would this living being interact and survive in an American climate? Could this poor little lizard alter the entire ecosystem of insects in your neighborhood?

Ecologists study the relationships of living things to their environment and with each other, and examine the effects of a wide range of factors such as population size, rainfall, temperature, forest fires and major construction projects. The basic principle that they follow is that all life on Earth is connected and it is supposed to fit together harmoniously, although we have seen over time that it does not. Interested in sustainability issues, they are faced with trying to solve the impact that many human activities, such as over consumption and air pollution have on the environment and ecosystem in the long term.

Sustainable development, which is loosely the idea of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs, is a very important field of study. Ecologists study how humans consume and produce for their own personal, short-term benefit, without considering the long-term effects of their actions. Ecologists try and promote sustainability ideas, getting more people to understand that we must sometimes act in ways that will help the future environment and ecosystem. If we deplete all of our natural resources, then where will new resources be found?

Ecologists usually specialize in one or more of the following biological areas: botany, marine biology, microbiology, soil science, toxicology, zoology or related disciplines concerned with conservation of the environment. Often working as part of multi-disciplinary teams, ecologists conduct research studies into problems such as the effects of dam construction, mining, logging and recreational use on natural habitats, the management of fish, wildlife and forestry resources, the development of biological control strategies to combat pest insects and weeds, and the effects of pollutants discharged into the air by factories or vehicles on natural vegetation and wildlife.

Since ecologists specialize in specific areas, they are found performing a wide variety of tasks. They are usually found in the field studying, researching and collecting samples. When they have collected all of the necessary criteria, they usually bring it into the laboratory to analyze with various tools.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Ecologists are interested in the relationships between living things and have a real interest in nature. They are constantly searching for answers to complex questions, have the ability to learn new concepts quickly and think logically. As scientists, they must maintain the ability to remain objective in all of their research and studies.

Ecologists must have excellent communication skills, both in person and in writing, and have the ability to work either independently and as part of a team. Certain types of fieldwork require considerable physical stamina, and as an unwritten rule, ecologists have a love of the outdoors and wildlife.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct field research which involves following rigorous scientific procedures to collect water, soil, plant or animal samples, and count and identify organisms
  • Study animals over long periods of time, noting characteristics such as population numbers, life history patterns, behavior, diet and habitat use
  • Work to protect native wildlife, plants and ecosystems
  • Study and dissect plant and animal specimens in greenhouses and laboratories
  • Analyze field and laboratory data
  • Monitor animal populations
  • Use computer simulations to model problems and evaluate possible solutions
  • Prepare written reports and recommendations
  • Supervise the work of technologists and technicians
  • Advise governments and environmental councils on environmental management
  • Depending on the nature of their projects, ecologists may work outdoors in locations that may be rugged or remote, or indoors in laboratories and offices. They often work long hours. Some projects require hours of observation and/or weeks of travel. Others require the use of specialized equipment and techniques. Ecologists need to be safety conscious and take all necessary precautions as they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals or travel in dangerous areas. For instance, they may be up in the Andes mountains studying forestry or out in the Sahara desert, depending on their area of speciality.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Ecologists can be found in a multitude of areas. Generally, they work for governments, universities and colleges, research institutions, conservation organizations, environmental consulting firms, and large private corporations such as manufacturers of agricultural products, forestry companies, paper manufacturers, and oil and gas companies. Some ecologists are self-employed and run their own consulting and research firms. In this case, they work on a contract basis to do impact studies and develop services or products for ecosystems.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What are the possibilities for long term ecology employment? Corporations employ ecologists to help them safeguard supplies of raw materials, make sure that their operations comply with government regulations, and monitor processes and products. However, advancement opportunities are limited for ecologists who have only a bachelor's degree. A PhD is usually required for university and independent research positions, and may be required for advancement to senior management positions.

  Educational Paths  
Ecologists must have at least one undergraduate degree with a solid grounding in biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, mathematics, calculus, statistics and computer science. Depending on their area of specialization, ecologists may also have an academic background in such diverse subjects as climatology, economics, geology, mathematical modeling, meteorology, oceanography, sociology or soil science. Most research jobs in ecology require a graduate degree: usually a master's degree, but sometimes a PhD if you want to teach at the university level.

Related summer work experience or volunteer experience is a definite asset for university graduates looking for work. Entry-level positions are often short-term, contract positions.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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