What is ecology the study of?
Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, as well as the patterns that govern the behavior of the biosphere.
Ecology is one of the main ways that humankind grapples with issues such as climate change, ocean acidification and loss of species diversity. Ecology is about more than predicting, cataloging and preventing catastrophe, though. It's a diverse field of study that can lead to work with governments, businesses, charitable organizations or individuals, whether in the field, in an office or in a lab.
Ecology is arguably one of the oldest sciences in the world. Before the first attempt to mix a poultice, understand the stars or set a bone, there was the need to understand annual patterns that affect the movements of animals and the growth of plants. Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has sought to understand its relationship to the living world. Often, we've done so to protect ourselves from that world, but increasingly, the aim is to protect our world from us.
Ecology has been vitally important to the development of complex societies, as it has enabled far greater levels of food production and led to the development of sustainable production systems that can continue as-is, in perpetuity, eliminating the need for a nomadic lifestyle.
Ecology also allows us to indulge in our innate fascination with plants and animals, not just for practical gains but for pure scientific progress as well. Many ecologists have been drawn to the field because of the chance to work with animals, keep animal populations strong and advance our understanding of their biology and living habits.
Some ecologists seek to determine how and why ants build colonies the way they do; others work to improve grain farming's resilience in response to weather changes. It's a diverse field in which talented, hard-working scientists often carve out career paths that are totally unique to them. Because ecology can go in so many different directions, it can open the door to many fascinating and fulfilling occupations.
The structure of an online ecology degree
Pursuing an online ecology degree, such as a degree in conservation biology and ecology, requires a generalized education in the sciences. The first semesters tend to be similar to those of other majors in the life sciences, featuring introductory courses in math, physics, chemistry and biology. Over time, prerequisites focus on increasingly specific forms of chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, as well as the various branches of biology, particularly genetics.
Soon after, students take courses that deal with ecology directly. These courses introduce students to the different types of ecology and can enable them to start pursuing specializations. Some students will gravitate toward more statistics-based areas of study, comparable to an education in applied mathematics, while others will focus on field work in disciplines such as conservation ecology.
Types of ecology
In ecology, there are myriad specialties to pursue; each of which can take drastically different approaches from the others. For example, marine ecology makes use of conservation ecology, while microbial ecology applies the insights of population ecology. However, the following subdivisions represent the major fields of study and work in ecology.
- Conservation ecology: The use of ecological knowledge to determine the best ways of conserving the integrity of ecosystems and strengthening living populations.
- Marine ecology: The study of ecosystems and biological relationships in the world's oceans, lakes and rivers.
- Microbial ecology: The study of ecosystems and biological relationships at the level of single-celled organisms.
- Population ecology: The study of how large groups of a single species behave over time, and how those behaviors relate to their natural environment.
- Systems ecology: The study of mostly non-living elements of the environment, and how those elements affect life and the biosphere.
- Terrestrial ecology: The study of ecosystems and biological relationships on land.
This partial list can give you a sense of how diverse the study of ecology is. It is equally varied in its career paths.
The different types of ecologist jobs
There are many jobs available to ecology graduates. They might work to strengthen traditional farming practices, or join an agricultural technology firm. They could investigate the effects of fossil fuel consumption on a particular species, or work for a resource company and provide modeling to support the extraction of fossil fuels. To a real extent, the job prospects for an ecologist are limited only by their imagination. Accordingly, listing ecology careers can only provide representative examples of the numerous professions ecology graduates might pursue, but here are a few common ones worth exploring.
- Ecological sciences professional
Ecology is a complex discipline, and the science itself requires reinvestment to continue advancing. These workers take the lead on this front, whether as professional research scientists, lecturers or both. They are most often employed by universities.
This broad profession encompasses ecological consulting in public and private sectors. Their work generally focuses on reducing organizations' environmental impacts and ensuring operations can proceed without harming vital plant, animal and human habitats. Environmental consultant positions can be some of the best-compensated jobs for ecologists.
- Natural resource manager
This occupation involves monitoring and protecting the state of a particular ecosystem, often through investigating and manipulating certain environmental factors. Natural resource managers routinely monitor the populations of various species and use their observations to determine how living and non-living natural resources should be controlled.
- Park naturalist
Distinct from a park ranger, a park naturalist generally interacts with the public and provides educational services. They might be tasked with enforcing park rules at times, but they are more specifically responsible for making sure visitors know why the rules are there, and why it's important that they be respected.
- Restoration ecologist
Restoration ecologists are hired to help undo damage that's already been done, making them some of the most important professionals in the area of conservation. Their duties can range from designing rehabilitation programs for oil-slicked areas of water to supporting the repopulation of habitats in overly clear-cut-area forests.
Earn your online ecology degree at Arizona State University
Aspiring ecologists can pursue any of these careers, and many more, with the appropriate education. ASU Online offers a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences with a concentration in conservation biology and ecology. This degree will help prepare you to solve the biggest ecological challenges we face.