Ecologist


As an ecologist, you study the relationships between living things and their environment. You study and monitor all kinds of aspects of natural and managed ecosystems, for example temperatures and rainfall, competition for food and habitat, predation, disease, and human activities such as farming, hunting, and industry. Your work is used to answer questions of conservation such as how many fish or deer can be harvested, questions of environmental protection, such as whether a species is in danger and what can be done about it, and questions of management and environmental stewardship, such as where parks and protected areas should be located.

At a glance

Imagine standing knee-deep in a fast-moving, frigid creek 20 metres from where it runs into a spectacular alpine lake. In front of you is a large fishing net strung between the creek's banks, and caught in it are five enormous bull trout. You are an ecologist and you've been here for two weeks gathering data on the endangered bull trout population.Two decades ago, the province wanted to encourage sport fishing and tourism in the area, so it introduced rainbow and brown trout to the lake. These new species became direct competitors with the bull trout for food and habitat, sending the bull trout population into sharp decline. Years of study and work have been dedicated to reviving the bull trout population by removing the introduced fish. You are here to see if these measures are working.As an ecologist, you spend a lot of time studying the population dynamics of the bull trout, and this time of year is always hectic for you. This is when the bull trout make a run up the creek to spawn, giving you your best opportunity to gather data. The fishing net contraption you have placed across the creek allows the trout to swim upstream to their spawning grounds but catches them before they return to the lake. Several times a day, you wade out to the nets to grab the fish that have been caught and bring them to your mobile station on the bank.One at a time, you put the bull trout in a basin of water with a bit of anaesthetic that temporarily sedates the fish so you can work with each one for about 10 minutes. When the fish is sufficiently calm, you take it out of the basin and check for an identification chip implanted just under the skin. If the fish doesn't have a chip, it's probably a juvenile born last year, in which case you will implant a chip before putting it back in the water. Once you have identified the fish, you measure its length and weigh it on your portable scale. You then put the fish in another tank, where you will keep it until the anaesthetic's effects have worn off and the fish can be safely returned to the creek to continue on its way to the lake.Once the spawn is over, you will compare the data from this year to years previous. The ID chip lets you track each fish individually so you can check if it is growing longer and gaining weight, indications of an abundant food supply. Also, the ID chip lets you measure recruitment rates by counting how many new juveniles are caught without chips, as well as death rates by counting how many fish from last year didn't return to the creek. These factors will allow you to evaluate the recovery of the lake's bull trout population.After a couple long weeks in the field, you will return to your office and begin analyzing all the data using statistical software to indicate the size and growth of the bull trout population and whether it is going to survive in the lake.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an ecologist:
  • Develop and test hypotheses about populations, communities, and ecosystem function.
  • Conduct field, lab, and theoretical research, including collecting and analyzing water and soil samples and wildlife specimens.
  • Analyze field and laboratory data using statistics and mathematical models.
  • Study plant and animal characteristics over extended periods of time, for example life history patterns, population size, diet and habitat use, and behaviour.
  • Assess the biodiversity of ecosystems and examine the influence of disturbances such as pollution, agriculture, and climate change.
  • Provide useful data and advice, working with government, industry, non-governmental organizations, communities, and individuals, to wisely manage landscapes and ecosystems.
  • Use modeling techniques to assess the potential impact of changes to the ecosystem, for example the introduction of new species.
  • Examine ecological processes, rates, impacts, and environmental responses of ecosystem components.
  • Publish the results of studies and research so that other scientists and the public can learn from them.

Work environment

Ecologists work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to:In the field:
  • Studying wildlife and plant populations, including collecting samples and specimens
  • Travelling to present at conferences and public forums to explain your findings to the public, government, and industry personnel
  • Conducting ecosystem studies
In the office:
  • Entering and analyzing data, including spatial mapping, statistical analysis, and Geographic Information Systems
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and the public, and presenting report findings to clients
  • Preparing computer models based on research to illustrate and manipulate ecosystem structure
  • Researching new technology and advancements in ecology, and consulting with other ecology professionals
  • Planning and preparing for field research
  • Compiling data and preparing reports and scientific articles
In the lab:
  • Processing samples collected in the field, including counting and measuring organisms, analyzing samples, and conducting genetic analysis
  • Conducting lab experiments
  • Maintaining and preparing equipment for fieldwork

Where to work

There are a number of places ecologists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Natural resource and utility companies, for example logging, mining, and hydro
  • Conservation authorities and centres, zoological parks, and aquariums
  • Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as an ecologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Biology
  • Mathematics
  • Calculus
  • Chemistry
  • English
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an ecologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are interested in research, a graduate degree is usually required.If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an ecologist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Ecology
  • Biology
  • Biogeography
  • Conservation Biology
  • Environmental Science
  • Mathematics
Although it is not necessary to be certified in order to work as an ecologist, some practitioners choose to apply for Professional Biologist status. The requirements for this designation vary among provinces.

Role Model

Todd Fell

Todd Fell works in an ecological consulting firm based in Guelph, Ontario. Todd's role as a restoration ecologist/ecological technician includes responsibilities that range from conducting inventories and analyses of vegetation and wildlife resources, to restoration plans and working with computer-assisted design (CAD) programs. Many of these projects require a multidisciplinary approach, so Todd often works closely with engineers, hydrologists, botanists and other specialists."Although I believe in conservation first, my real passion is ecological restoration, which means trying to repair damage done to an area or a species. The pace of development is so fast that I feel a responsibility to take an active role in restoring natural landscapes."Like many people, Todd followed a career path that wasn't exactly a straight line. He graduated from the University of Guelph in landscape architecture, and through his involvement with environmental community groups like the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Todd discovered the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). Through the SER, Todd heard of a 1-year college program at Niagara College in Saint Catharines, Ontario, that specialized in restoration ecology. Upon graduation, Todd was able to quickly get a contract with a firm that matched his career aspirations. "It's been 2 years since that first 6-month contract and I'm still here; sometimes all you need is a chance to get your foot in the door!"