What does an ecologist do?

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What is an Ecologist?

Ecology is concerned with the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment. On the most basic level, ecologists study nature. They seek to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them. They are driven by their desire to protect nature from harm and preserve the Earth.

Ecologists question, for example, how the behaviors of birds – such as migration – are stimulated by changes in the environment. They educate local communities about environmental issues and ecosystems in their area. They examine the wreckage brought on by climate change and natural disasters. When animals need to be removed from their habitats, ecologists help to determine how this shift can affect the behavior of the environment that they leave behind. They seek to understand, assess, and mitigate the impacts of imbalances caused by natural disturbances like fires, landslides, floods, droughts, windstorms, and insect and pest outbreaks, and human-caused disturbances like oils pills.

In short, ecologists advance the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices that enhance ecosystem resilience and human wellbeing. They are the stewards of ecosystems, of natural environments, and essentially of our planet.

What does an Ecologist do?

An ecologist taking a water sample from a stream. As stewards of an entire planet, ecologists apply their knowledge and skills in many different ways. Their work may involve:

  • Informing environmentally sustainable development (ecological consultancy)
  • Controlling non-native and invasive species
  • Cleaning up contaminated sites (remediation)
  • Informing sustainable forestry practices
  • Feeding human populations in an ecologically sustainable way – such as nature-friendly farming (agriculture and agro-ecology) and sustainable fisheries
  • Using modeling* techniques to predict future ecological changes** due to future climate scenarios, invasive species, etc.
  • Informing policy makers and other groups about threats to ecosystems and how to mitigate them
  • Applying environmental laws and regulations
  • Managing the use and development of land resources for diverse purposes – from agriculture and water to nature and tourism (land management)
  • Putting a value on the benefits that nature provides us (environmental economics)
  • Studying and understanding past environments and climates
  • Carrying out off-site conservation in botanical gardens, aquariums, etc.
  • Educating individuals, schools, and other groups about interactions in nature and how they relate to humans
  • Informing conservation biology
  • Planning healthy, sustainable cities
  • Ensuring that ecosystems can continue to sustain human life through ecosystem services such as providing food, fuel, fiber, and medicines; regulating climate; controlling erosion; protecting from storms; advancing cultural development; and more

The tasks described above are a snapshot of the wide range of work that the field of ecology encompasses. Ecologists may narrow their focus by choosing a specialization.

Here are some examples of ecology specializations:

  • Population ecology studies the processes that affect the dynamics of populations, like distribution and abundance; a population is defined as a group of individuals of the same species that live and interbreed within the same geographical area.
  • Community ecology studies how communities – groups of interacting populations sharing the same area – are organized and function.
  • Molecular ecology studies how microorganisms interact with each other, their environment, and other species.
  • Behavioral ecology studies how and animal’s behavior relates to its ecological environment, from an evolutionary perspective.
  • Ecosystem ecology studies how living and non-living components of ecosystems interact within an ecosystem; an ecosystem is defined as all the organisms and the physical environment with which they interact.
  • Landscape ecology studies the pattern and interaction between ecosystems within a relatively large region, and how they affect ecological processes.
  • Agroecology applies ecological principles to agricultural systems to, for example, inform new management approaches.
  • Global ecology studies how the Earth’s ecosystems, land, atmosphere, and oceans interact.
  • Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy that promotes all living beings as having equal value, and advocates for new relationships between humans and nature.
  • Tropical ecology studies how living things interact with their environment in the tropics.

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What is the workplace of an Ecologist like?

Because there are so many different kinds of ecologists, there is no single work environment. Some may work outdoors – sometimes in rugged or remote locations – collecting samples, tracking animals, and gathering data. Some may also have to work up close with animals, only some of which may be tranquilized, resulting in scratches or bites. Other ecologists may find themselves outdoors analyzing how the introduction of other plant or animal species would impact an area, or working to restore an area.

However, there are plenty of ecologists who spend their entire workday indoors in laboratories or offices, conducting data analysis and research at a computer or meeting with business, community, state, and even national leaders to discuss ecology, answer questions about nature conservation and green technology, and lobby for new protective regulations.

In general, ecologists work a standard 40-hour week and are not required to work evenings, weekends, holidays, or any overtime. Some projects, though, require hours of observation and extended workdays. Some roles may involve travel.

Among the most common employment settings for ecologists are:

  • Federal, state, and local government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Private corporations such as manufactures of agricultural products, forestry companies, and oil and gas companies
  • Conservation authorities and centers, zoological parks, and aquariums
  • Nonprofit and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

Ecologists are also known as:
Ecological Engineer Conservationist