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What is a Conservation Biology Degree?
Conservation biology is a life science. Its mission is to protect and restore biodiversity – the diversity of plant and animal life on Earth.
To preserve biodiversity, conservation biologists and conservation scientists are focused on three questions: How is the diversity of life distributed around the planet? What threats does this diversity face? What can we do to reduce or eliminate these threats? These questions are at the heart of degree programs in conservation biology, which explore biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels.
Bachelor’s Degree in Conservation Biology – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in conservation biology provide students with fundamental, foundational knowledge in the discipline. Courses address topics such as:
The components of biodiversity
- All forms of life – bacteria, fungi, plants, insects and other invertebrates, and vertebrates
- All levels of organization of living things – individual organisms and their genetic material; groups of similar organisms, such as populations and species; and groups of species in communities, ecosystems, and landscapes (groups of adjacent ecosystems)
- All the interactions among the forms of life and their levels of organization, including competition, predation, and symbiosis
The biodiversity crisis
- The rate of extinction has accelerated throughout human history.
- The current rate of extinction is roughly 100 to 1,000 times greater than the natural rate.
- This loss of biodiversity will harm people, because we depend on nature for food, medicines (such as cancer treatments), industrial products (such as oils and resins), and vital ecosystem services (such as water purification, erosion control, and climate control).
The value of biodiversity
- Biodiversity benefits people directly and maintains interaction between the living and non-living parts of the environment. For example, biodiversity has provided plants for crops that feed billions of people, as well as decomposing organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that release nutrients from organic material into soil and water.
- Biodiversity has worth beyond the goods and services it provides humans and ecosystems. It has inherent value.
The three levels of biodiversity
- Genetic diversity – refers to the range of different inherited traits within a species; in a species of high genetic diversity, there can be many individuals with a wide variety of different traits; for example, some individuals may look different while others may be more resistant to disease; genetic diversity is critical for individuals and populations to adapt to changing environments; the loss of genetic diversity makes a species more prone to extinction
- Species diversity – different regions of the Earth have different types and numbers of species; all of the different types of species distributed around the globe contribute to the patterns of life on Earth
- Ecosystem diversity – different regions of the Earth have different types and numbers of ecosystems; the diversity of ecosystems is important because different ecosystems have different properties; for example, wetlands purify water and forests take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to control global warming
Ecosystems and their relevance to conservation biology
- An ecosystem comprises living and non-living components that interact with one another, such as plants and animals with nutrients, water, air, and sunlight.
- Ecosystems range in size from a few square feet to millions of square miles. There are no set ecosystem boundaries, rather they are defined by the particular component(s) that biologists are interested in. For example, a biologist who wants to know how residential development has affected the fish in a stream ecosystem might study the small streams that feed into a large stream as well as the surrounding land. Such an ecosystem would cover many square miles and would include hundreds of living and non-living components.
- While conservation traditionally focused on protecting single species, the current focus is often on protecting entire ecosystems or even groups of ecosystems, known as landscapes. This trend increases the probability that we will protect large-scale processes, such as nutrient cycling, on which biodiversity depends.
- Biologists measure biodiversity by first sampling the organisms and then extrapolating to estimate the total number of organisms.
Biodiversity hotspots and where they are concentrated
- Biodiversity hotspots are areas that have large numbers of species and/or have many species that are not found anywhere else (endemic species).
- Conservation efforts in hotspots can protect or restore a relatively large part of the total biodiversity worldwide.
- Most biologists recognize about 25 global biodiversity hotspots that have many species as well as many endemic species. Most hotspots are in tropical regions, including the Amazon Basin, Central America, the Caribbean, Western Africa, Madagascar, Western India, and South East Asia. Many of these regions are hotspots because they have species-rich rainforests and coral reefs. However, there are also non-tropical biodiversity hotspots, including Central Chile, the Mediterranean Basin, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Central China, Western Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Coast of the United States. Other hotspots in the US include the southeastern region, California, and Hawaii.
The main threats to biodiversity
- Habitat loss and fragmentation – result from development, clearing land for agriculture, water diversion, and logging
- Habitat degradation – involves disturbing habitat features, such as extensive erosion or adding toxins to the soil or water; the most common causes of degradation are pollution and human recreation, such as off-road vehicles
- Introduced species – species that people have intentionally or unintentionally moved beyond their native range; introduced species can devastate native species and ecosystems
- Overharvesting – hunting, fishing, or collecting so many individuals from a species that it can no longer reproduce enough to withstand the harvest
- Stop overharvesting species
- Stop destroying habitats
- Stop polluting and disturbing habitats
- Stop spreading non-native species
- Reverse damage that has already been done, by reintroducing native species and controlling invasive non-native species
Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology – Two Year Duration
The master’s program in conservation biology provides advanced training in the discipline to students who wish to enhance their career or prepare for doctoral studies. While the curriculum varies according to students’ specific interests, the focus is on extensive research on one’s chosen thesis topic. Laboratories and field trips are significant components of the program.
Here are some sample master’s level courses:
- Biostatistics and Experimental Design – statistical analysis of data in a biological context; students will identify a variety of biological problems, develop specific questions, design and conduct experiments to address these questions, formulate and test hypotheses, choose and run the appropriate statistical test, and interpret the outcomes of the test
- Invertebrate Zoology – exploration of the diversity, natural history, physiology, and behavior of invertebrate animals; development of practical skills by designing, performing, and communicating original scientific research
- Conservation Techniques – a field intensive introduction to conservation techniques: determining the age of many species, trapping for population assessments, terrestrial and aquatic sampling methods, methods for assessing population health through necropsies (autopsies), and habitat management techniques
- Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy – study of the similarities of anatomy and early development of vertebrates, complemented by dissection of representative adults
- Genetics – study of the principles of heredity including both classical and molecular genetics
- Physiology – study of the principles of physiology, emphasizing metabolic processes common to many organisms
- Conservation Biology – study of the principles of conservation and wildlife management; examination of the ecology of species of interest and the habitat manipulation techniques used in the conservation of such organisms
- Ecology and Conservation of the Vertebrates – study of the natural history and ecology of North American vertebrates, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals; examination of conservation concerns of particular vertebrates
- Taxonomy of Vascular Plants – field study of the vascular plants of the local area, focusing on the common herbaceous plants, vines, shrubs, and trees and their identification
- Ecology – study of the interactions between organisms and their biological and physical environments
- Parasitology – study of parasites and parasitic diseases; the ecology, epidemiology, and biochemistry of parasites and diseases caused by parasites; the identification of important parasite groups and methods for host examination and diagnosis
- Natural Resource Policy – examination of current laws and policies governing public and private lands and the conservation of wildlife in the United States
- Environmental Ethics – examination of the relationship between humans and their natural environment, addressing the problems confronting the necessity to balance conservation with human need and the use of natural resources; topics include an ethical consideration for the urban environment and of wilderness preservation, the interplay of local and global environmental ethics, the ethics of sustainability, and the scope of historical and modern bioethical issues
- Marine Biology – laboratory and field exploration of the nature of life in the ocean and in coastal environments
- Ornithology – the identification and ecology of birds
- Plant Physiology – study of physiological factors influencing the chemical and structural composition of plant absorption and utilization of water and minerals; photosynthesis, translocation, respiration, nitrogen metabolism; and growth and development; how plants function, including resource acquisition, energy creation and use, resource allocation, life cycle, and stress response
- Dendrology – the identification and management of trees, focusing on forest ecology and silviculture, the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society such as wildlife habitat, timber, water resources, restoration, and recreation on a sustainable basis
- Plant-Insect Intersections – introduction to insects and their relationships with plants; topics include insect ecology, taxonomy, and biology, as well as plant strategies to overcome insect damage and mutualism between plants and insects; laboratory and field work in insect collection and identification and evaluation of positive and negative impacts of insects on plants
Doctoral Degree in Conservation Biology – Three to Five Year Duration
To enter a doctoral program in conservation biology, students must hold an approved master’s degree, either in conservation biology or a related discipline. Because of the wide scope of the field, there are typically very few fixed course requirements at this level.
The goal of the program is to produce scientists who are broadly educated in evolutionary and conservation biology, ecology, and associated disciplines. The majority of doctoral graduates go on to careers in research and university teaching.
Core courses, laboratories, and field trip experiences for conservation biology doctoral candidates may include:
- Zoo Animal Conservation Science – the conservation, physiology, and management of exotic animal species in a captive setting; topics include conservation biology, population genetics, nutrition, reproduction (natural and assisted), behavior, exhibitry, environmental enrichment, and veterinary care; also covered are taxonomy, zoo research, the role of zoos in conservation, and the ethics of maintaining captive animals
- Wildlife Ecosystem Health – introduction to the use of medical reasoning and technology in the investigation of problems related to conservation biology and ecosystem health; topics include the ecology of vector-borne diseases, global amphibian population declines, wildlife epidemiology and pathology, and the role of zoos in disease surveillance and management
- Insect Ecology – the role of insects in the environment
- Conservation Biology – the preservation of biological diversity; introduction to the use of modern molecular techniques in conservation biology, computer simulation modeling, and field conservation problem solving
- Wildlife Population Ecology – the application of principles of population biology to the analysis, management, and conservation of wildlife populations; models of population growth
- Fishery Ecology and Conservation – ecological and conservation concepts applied to fisheries management practices, focusing on fish populations, life history, conservation biology and genetics, growth, competition, predation, ecosystem management, and human dimensions
- Restoration Ecology – the application of ecological principles to restoration planning
- Politics of International Conservation and Development – the global challenge of conserving the Earth’s rich biological heritage while enhancing the wellbeing of the poor; addressing the twin problems of biodiversity loss and human poverty in developing countries
- Aquatic Ecosystem and Conservation – the major threats and disturbances to aquatic ecosystems
- Soil and Water Conservation – application of the principles of soil conservation and management to the solution of land use problems; influence of soil characteristics on erosion control, cropping intensity, water management, and land use planning
Doctoral level courses in related disciplines may include:
- Behavioral Ecology
- Evolutionary Ecology
- Insect Ecology
- Field Ecology
- Stream Ecology
- Ecosystem Ecology
- Community Ecology
- Environments and Plant Ecosystems
- Landscape Ecology
- Evolution of Traits and Genomes
- Population Genetics
- Environments and the Evolutionary Physiology of Animals
- Insect Classification and Evolution
- General Mycology (the study of fungi)
- Evolution of Infectious Disease
- Evolutionary Neuroscience – The Brain and Behavior of Vertebrates
Degrees Similar to Conservation Biology
Botany is the study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants. Degree programs in the field include courses in biochemistry, microbiology, photosynthesis, and plant evolution.
Students who pursue a degree in ecology study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them. An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.
Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.
Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.
Fisheries Sciences and Management
Fisheries sciences and management degree programs focus on the biology and ecology of fish and shellfish. Students of the field learn about fisheries protection, production, and management. In short, the objective of these programs is to provide students with the knowledge and skills required to maintain long-term sustainable harvesting.
Forestry degree programs teach students how to conserve and manage forests through sustainable practices. This means the curriculum covers both preserving biodiversity, as well as producing wood products in ecologically responsible ways. Classes also address contemporary issues like climate change, carbon management, and how to plan and manage urban forests or green spaces in metropolitan areas.
Natural Resource Management
Natural resource management is about finding ways to sustain the Earth’s resources in the face of the growing human population. Majors in this discipline are typically passionate about clean water, clean energy, and clean environments. They study in the classroom, in the computer lab, and in the field and learn how to apply scientific and ecological knowledge, as well as economic and social awareness to find solutions to preserving our natural world.
Wildlife Science and Management
Wildlife science and management majors learn how animals exist within their habitats and ecosystems. Graduates in this field may become game wardens, conservation officers, natural resource officers, or wildlife managers.
Zoology students learn about animals, their evolution, anatomy, physiology, and natural habitats. Graduates may be employed by zoos, veterinary clinics, or labs. Their work may involve monitoring and writing reports on animal behavior, analyzing specimens to test for diseases, and/or working in the areas of ecology and conservation.
Skills You’ll Learn
Students earning a conservation biology degree develop a considerable set of transferrable hard and soft skills:
- ability to communicate findings and results using models, graphs, and charts
- ability to conduct fieldwork
- ability to consider problems with a scientific approach
- ability to design, conduct, and interpret scientific research
- ability to work both independently and as part of a team
- attention to detail / accuracy
- community outreach
- data management skills
- general and scientific writing skills
- GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning system) software
- observation and analytical skills
- oral communication / presentation skills
- project management skills
- understanding of information technology
What Can You Do with a Conservation Biology Degree?
As the conservation industry grows and becomes more diverse, the array of jobs in the field is, not surprisingly, also expanding. Opportunities for conservation biology graduates exist in sectors such as:
- Animal Welfare – caring for animals; animal husbandry and animal enrichment programs
- Community-based Conservation – helping people to be part of the solution
- Conservation Communications and Marketing – raising the profile of conservation
- Conservation Fundraising and Development – raising money to save nature and protect biodiversity
- Conservation Mapping and GIS – putting nature on the map; maintaining and developing the ecological databases and spatial information systems
- Conservation Photography and Filmmaking – storytelling for change
- Conservation Policy and Advocacy – saving wildlife through law; drafting position papers, policy briefings, and reports
- Conservation Program and Project Management – saving the world one project at a time
- Conservation Science and Research – answering the key questions to tackle biodiversity loss
- Countryside Management – saving key sites for nature; warden and ranger conservation jobs
- Ecological Consultancy – ensuring ecologically sensitive development
- Ecotourism for Conservation – helping people experience the natural world
- Environmental Economics and Ecosystem Assessment – putting value on nature and biodiversity
- Environmental Education – increasing awareness and support for nature and biodiversity
- Marine Conservation – protecting the Earth’s waters
- Wildlife Science and Management – formulating and applying scientifically sound solutions to wildlife and habitat management problems
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