All Creatures Great and Small
Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms – including humans – and the world around them. Ecologists seek to understand the complex connections between these living organisms and their habitats. Ecologists study plants and animals at various levels, including individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems. While ecology is considered a part of biology, it is a highly interdisciplinary field and touches upon all the major branches of sciences. Some of the biggest problems confronting science and society today, including expanding populations, food scarcities, environmental pollution, climate change, global warming, and the extinction of plant and animal species, are to a great degree ecological.
An ecological community is all the animal and plant populations occupying a given area. The living (biotic) and nonliving environment (abiotic) function as an ecological system or ecosystem governed by population dynamics, competition, and energy and material cycling principles. Our understanding of ecology contributes to decisions about how natural resources are managed. Research to understand ecosystem use by humans has led to the development of fields such as sustainable development, resilience theory, restoration ecology, and ecosystem services.
The field of ecology consists of many sub-disciplines, including:
Population ecology is the branch of ecology that tries to understand the patterns and processes of change over time or space for populations of a single species. Scientists predict that in the coming decades, a significant percentage of amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, primates, plants, and reptiles will be at risk of extinction. This raises two critical questions: one, why are some species more vulnerable to extinction than others, and two, what will be the survival rates of individual populations in the future? Population ecologists study these and other questions about what factors affect population and how and why a population might change over time.
Landscape ecology is an interdisciplinary science that focuses on the pattern and interaction between ecosystems within a particular area of interest and how the various interactions in that area affect ecological processes. The development and dynamics of spatial heterogeneity (e.g., the uneven distribution of multiple concentrations of each species within a region) in landscapes is a central theme of landscape ecological studies, especially the effects of the conversion of natural ecosystems into human-dominated systems such as agricultural, housing or urban land use.
Community ecology is the study of the organization and functioning of communities. An ecological community is all the animal and plant populations occupying a given area. Communities are bound together by a shared environment and a network of influence each species has on the other. The number of interacting species in these communities and the complexity of their relationships exemplifies what is meant by the term “biodiversity.”
Biological diversity (or “biodiversity”) refers to the variety of life on Earth at all levels, from genes to ecosystems, and can encompass the evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes that sustain life. Conservation ecology is the branch of ecology that deals with the preservation and management of biological diversity and natural resources. Conservation ecology is an interdisciplinary field emerging rapidly due to the accelerating deterioration of natural systems and the worldwide epidemic of species extinctions. It aims to ensure the long-term preservation of biodiversity. To achieve this, a conservation ecologist pursues three main goals: (i) to document Earth’s biological diversity; (ii) to investigate how humans influence species, evolution, and ecosystem processes; and (iii) to investigate practical approaches to protect and restore biological communities, maintain genetic diversity, and prevent the extinction of species.
Behavioral ecology focuses on how the behavior of animals affects their ability to survive and reproduce. Behavioral ecologists study how competition and cooperation between and within species affect evolutionary fitness and how organisms behaviorally interact with their physical and social environment.
Physiological Ecology is the study of relationships between the physiology (e.g., the scientific study of functions and mechanisms in a living system) of organisms and their adaptation to environmental conditions. Physiological ecologists study what happens when an organism’s environment changes, including the short and long-term behavioral and physiological adjustments organisms make to survive and reproduce successfully in their ever-changing environments.
Evolutionary ecology, a field within both ecology and evolution, studies changes in species based on their ecological environment. Evolutionary ecologists try and unravel the mysteries of how animals, plants, and microbes function, how they interact, and how they evolve in a changing world. Evolutionary ecologists consider the evolutionary effects of competitors, mutualists, predators, prey, and pathogens.
Nothing on Earth occurs in isolation, and to fully understand what is happening to a species, a chemical, or a body of water, scientists need to study communities of interacting organisms and their environments (e.g., ecosystems). Ecosystem ecology examines the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components within the environment, how these factors interact, and how natural and human-induced changes affect how they function.
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- Ecosystem Ecology, USGS.
- Ecosystem Ecology, USGS.
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- Population Ecology, Nature Education.
- Clark, W. (2010). Principles of Landscape Ecology. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):34.
- Clark, W. (2010). Principles of Landscape Ecology. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):34.
- Community Ecology, Nature Education.
- Community Ecology, Encyclopedia Britannica.
- What Is Biodiversity?, Museum of Natural History.
- Conservation Ecology, University of California, Davis.
- The Science of Conservation Biology, Biology, LibreTexts Libraries.
- Sylvia L. Halkin, Alicia M. Bray, in Exploring Animal Behavior in Laboratory and Field (Second Edition), 2021.
- Physiological Ecology, Nature Education.
- Evolutionary Ecology, Nature Portfolio.
- Ecosystems Ecology, Smithsonian.
- Ecosystem Ecology, Nature Education.
The Path to Becoming an Ecologist
From High School to Your First Job
Build a Solid Academic Foundation
Take all available STEM-related courses (biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus) offered at your high school. Take all these classes at the most advanced level possible (honors, AP). This will help you build your knowledge base in scientific theory and concepts.
If not available at your high school, try and take additional science-related (marine biology, oceanography, ecology, wildlife ecology, microbiology, genetics, molecular biology, microbial ecology, zoology, conservation biology, evolution, environmental science, biostatistics) classes offered online.
Keep in Mind:
Try and get lab work experience through a research internship. Learn how to write for a scientific and non-scientific audience. The ability to communicate clearly in writing cannot be overstated. Given the international nature of scientific collaboration, become fluent in at least one foreign language.
jump on your Academic career
There’s no substitute for experience.
We have compiled a database of thousands of internships, research opportunities, academic programs and specialized training programs so you can get a jump on your academic career.
Academic Training Programs
And if you need support to fulfill your dreams and ambitions, our searchable database has plenty of scholarship opportunities as well as programs designed to increase diversity in the sciences.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Make all the right moves
Advice from those who know
Maintain an excellent GPA, especially in the sciences
Have some work experience on your resume
Try and get fieldwork experience outside of your university lab
Spend your free time in the lab and master basic lab techniques
Attend professional conferences and ecology seminars
Present your research at student research colloquiums
Build experience through internships or as an undergraduate researcher
What degree is right for you?
A bachelor’s degree is required for all entry-level jobs. You should obtain a degree in ecology (if offered by your school) or biology (if not) with a concentration in something complimentary to ecology like biochemistry, conservation biology, marine biology, zoology, geoscience, or environmental science. Familiarity with fieldwork, lab techniques, and the use of scientific instrumentation is essential.
A master’s degree is recommended as this is where you will be able to further specialize your studies in a particular branch of ecology, such as population ecology, evolutionary ecology, landscape ecology, or conservation ecology. It will also open up more employment opportunities with governmental agencies, private industry, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions. In a master’s program, you will learn the theory and the practice of ecology.
A doctoral degree and, most likely, post-doctoral studies are required if you want to open up university teaching positions. Senior level positions in state government agencies (wildlife, science advisor), federal government agencies (U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish, and Wildlife Service), and executive level positions in the private sector (consultancies, engineering, research institutes, nonprofits, corporations) may require that you have a doctoral degree.
10 Schools With Excellent Ecology Programs
Want to see the full list of colleges and universities with degree offerings or relevant courses?
Because ecology is interdisciplinary, develop a broad scientific background in the life sciences (zoology, microbiology, physiology, biology, and botany) and a good understanding of physical, chemical, and earth sciences.
Careers within ecology can vary significantly with many options, so it is essential to network. Attend ecology conferences and science fairs, and speak to people from a range of backgrounds so you can make more informed decisions.
There are lots of ways to get ahead. Get practical experience through internships. Research and write about an area of ecology that interests you. Present your research at a conference. Use social media to boost your profile.
Have familiarity with one or more of the following areas
Typical Job Functions of an Ecologist
Here are some of the interesting things you could be doing.
Conducting field, lab, and theoretical research.
Assessing the biodiversity of ecosystems.
Managing the remediation of contaminated sites.
Researching ways to feed human populations in an ecologically-sustainable way.
Using modeling techniques to predict ecological changes due to climate change.
Developing and testing hypotheses about populations, communities, and ecosystem functions.
Advising policymakers about how to mitigate threats to ecosystems.
Consulting on environmental laws and regulations.
Planning environmentally sustainable cities.
Managing ecological resources for public and private organizations.
There’s an Ocean of Possibilities
Because ecology covers so many different areas, potential career paths are equally as numerous. Jobs can be found in all sectors of the economy. You can search for positions either by area of specialization, employer type or job description.
Areas of specialization include:
- Community Ecology
- Evolutionary Ecology
- Physiological Ecology
- Population Ecology
- Microbial Ecology
- Molecular Ecology
- Behavioral Ecology
- Ecosystem Ecology
- Landscape Ecology
- Restoration Ecology
- Global Ecology
- Tropical Ecology
Employer types include:
- Private Industry
- Nonprofit Corporations
- Nongovernment Organizations
Job descriptions include:
- Field Ecologist
- Quantitative Ecologist
- Wetland Ecologist
- Plant Ecologist
- Coral Reef Ecologist
- Vegetation Ecologist
- Restoration Ecologist
- Conservation Ecologist
- Project Ecologist
- Coastal Ecologist
- Scientific Researcher
- Conservation Scientist
- Policy Official
- Ecological Consultant
- Environmental Services Manager
- Science Communication Writer
- Science Educator
- Natural Resource Manager
- Park Naturalist
- Wildlife Biologist
- Field Technician
- Laboratory Assistant
- Environmental Analyst
- Principal Researcher
Start your career search with our extensive list of employment websites.