Zoology is the scientific study of the animal kingdom. It encompasses an enormous variety of organisms, from small invertebrates such as earthworms to giant mammals such as blue whales. This discipline has many aspects of study, and zoologists can specialize in areas such as animal behaviour, physiology, anatomy, or taxonomy. Zoologists’ research is critical to a number of environmental issues and the protection of Canada’s animal species.
At a glance
Imagine you have been up all night, anxiously sitting behind a thick Plexiglas window watching from a distance as a female polar bear gives birth to two cubs. You are a zoologist and your speciality is mammal behaviour, specifically the interaction between mothers and their young. You have been invited to the zoo to witness this special event as part of your research. You will watch the new mother closely: her behaviour in her first few hours with the cubs has a huge impact on their chances for survival. What you see tonight will help you in your study of breeding bears and with any luck give you insight into what scientists can do to keep wild populations growing.
As a zoologist, you have been studying polar bears for years, but this is the first time you've witnessed the birth of cubs up close. Once the new additions are born, mother and cubs will need some time alone together, so you will observe their interactions using a remote camera hidden inside their micro-habitat.
In the first few hours of life, you will watch very closely to make certain the mother does not reject the cubs, which can happen every so often. If she does, you will look for indications why and determine if there is something you can do to prevent this from happening to animals in captivity and in the wild. But most likely the mother bear will welcome her cubs and begin teaching them how to survive within minutes of their birth. This is what you want to see: how her behaviour teaches them how to feed, run, and swim, as well as other necessary survival skills. Your opportunity will teach zoologists a lot about bear behaviour and survival.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a zoologist:
Investigate the relationships between animals and their environment.
Study the development, physiology, and function of animals.
Conduct surveys of animal populations and prepare reports for management agencies.
Supervise and coordinate the work of technical staff.
Collect, process, and prepare specimens for study.
Analyze data and experimental observations and evaluate study results.
Conduct research and literature reviews.
Prepare and publish scientific papers to report experimental results.
Zoologists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the office:
Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
Preparing articles and papers based on research findings
Researching new studies and advancements in zoology and conducting literature reviews
In the lab:
Processing and analyzing specimens
In the field:
Presenting research and experimental findings at conferences and public meetings
Where to work
There are a number of places zoologists can find employment. They include:
Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
Colleges, universities, and research institutes
Environmental consulting firms
Other industries, for example pharmaceutical research, agriculture and food production, and biotechnology companies
Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations
Education & requirements
If you are a high school student considering a career as a zoologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a zoologist is a university undergraduate degree. A graduate degree is required for independent research.
If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a zoologist, the following programs are most applicable:
Certification is not mandatory in order to work as a zoologist.
Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with business skills. The ECO Academy can help you build the essential skills needed for a successful environmental career. Learn more
When I was young I spent a lot of my time outdoors. I was always interested in ecology and I grew up hoping that I could help to advance our ecological and evolutionary knowledge. My university education started in the early 1970s and resulted in a Ph.D. by the end of the decade. I moved into a university position as an assistant professor and continued my research in ecology.
For the last twenty years I have been involved with several universities, both in Canada and internationally. My research into evolutionary ecology has focussed on the ecological and evolutionary implications of habitat selection, with small mammals as the primary study organisms. I view this research from a "big picture" perspective and try not to restrict my understanding to any particular group of species. The editor and referees of an important scientific journal recognized the value of my early theories and empirical work, and this helped to solidify my interest in habitat selection. Since that time I have expanded my basic theories and answered many questions about habitat’s role in ecology and evolution, and its use by wild species. I enjoy spending time in the field and encourage students to participate in the fieldwork. This hands-on activity allows us to gain insights into ecology and evolutionary biology that we would otherwise lack. Often my thinking is stimulated by fieldwork and by experiences at our various field sites. My teaching role goes hand-in-hand with my research. I am able to refine my understanding of nature, and pass on that understanding to new generations of ecologists.
Fieldwork is one important way that I keep myself grounded in what is important and practical. I stay up-to-date with current information by reading journals, reviewing manuscripts, developing theory, teaching students and networking with colleagues. The Internet allows me to connect, and share ideas, with other scientists around the world. I also attend the annual meeting of The Canadian Society of Zoologists plus one major international conference each year.
There are numerous employment possibilities associated with the growing government and societal emphasis on environmental issues. In the academic setting, advancement through salary increases is associated with achievement. Beyond the full professor level, advancement is mainly through the administrative stream. From a personal perspective, in the future I intend to learn more about the adaptive behaviour of animals as indicators of environmental stress. My goal is to be more active internationally, and to demonstrate how to solve problems in conservation with the knowledge we have gained, and continue to gain, in two decades of field research on small mammals.
If you are considering the life of a university zoology or ecology professor you will require education in mathematics as well as a graduate degree in biology. The discipline needs people who can look at problems from a broad perspective. It is best to be more interested in the problems themselves rather than in particular animal or plant species. People with a broad background and experience in international conservation projects will have an advantage. Environmental positions are available from coast to coast but many are located in Ottawa and provincial capitals.
My day-to-day activities vary with the season. During the fall and winter I concentrate on teaching and I interact with students, other faculty members and administrators. In the summer months I enjoy being active in fieldwork at our Arctic, southern Alberta, northern and southern Ontario sites. I have the opportunity to work with many different biologists, foresters and government agencies. The hours I work per week are officially thirty-five but are often eighty or more, especially in fieldwork season. The other duties that go with teaching and fieldwork are statistical analyses, computer simulations, handling wild animals, use of a variety of capture and safety equipment, writing, reviewing manuscripts and grant applications, organizing seminars and symposia, and administration.
Research and teaching new generations of students to think about ecology, evolution and conservation are mutually rewarding. I am fortunate, and thankful, to enjoy the freedom to think in new and creative ways. This freedom of thought allows me to contribute innovative solutions to environmental problems.