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What is an ecologist?

Ecology is the study of the relationship between natural habitats and the organisms that live there.

Using site surveys, abundance data and species preferences, ecologists are able to determine the health and biological importance of different areas and habitats. Ecologists use this information to advise landowners and governments on how best to protect certain habitats, and can deliver restoration projects in order to protect endangered areas and species.


Photo by Andy Milne


The different types of ecology

Ecology is a broad discipline. You can slice it as many ways as you want, depending on your interests.

If you like being on land, as opposed to being in the water, then terrestrial ecology may be where you want to start, as opposed to looking at freshwater or marine ecosystems.

If you enjoy looking at how the composition of physical and biotic factors affect and produce different habitats, which in turn affect the organisms living there, then maybe you can look into habitat ecology. And, if you are interested in looking at how disturbance (pollution, urbanisation, invasive species, etc.) affect the state of a habitat and the species it supports, maybe you’d be interested in surveying and classifying habitats (something you can find out more about from organisations such as UKHab).

Conservation ecology lets you take a holistic approach to conserving different parts of our biosphere. If you are interested in saving a certain species, then as a conservation ecologist you’d take in all factors, such as food availability, habitat disturbance, and interspecies interactions, all in order to find out the cause(s) of that species decline and fix all the different links separately. Dissertation projects such as our green turtle research going on in Mexico demonstrate this type of approach to conservation, so if you are interested I’d suggest checking that out!


Photo by Shearer Shez Viljoan


If you enjoy learning about why certain animals act in certain ways, either in response to other organisms in their ecosystem or as conditions change (e.g. at different times of the day or year, or at different ages), then behavioural ecology could be the branch for you. Plus, learning about how a certain, seemingly dull behaviour can massively affect an ecosystem can be really interesting, for example, a pig turning soil to find food doesn’t seem that interesting until you find out that this behaviour allows for a completely different variety and diversity of plant species to thrive, in turn affecting all other organisms present. You can see this in action by joining one of our Knepp field courses, where the Tamworth pigs’ rootling behaviours expose scarlet pimpernel seeds. These tiny orange flowers are actually the favourite food of turtle doves, a species that was once common across the UK but is now our fastest declining bird species.

Plant, fungal and animal ecologists will study things like how changes in habitat (e.g. how pristine or degraded an area is) effect the presence and abundance of different species. They might look at how plants interact with other plants, animals and fungi, and how a certain species may adapt depending on the composition of the organisms around them. They’ll study how an organism fulfils their role as in a food chain, and how they interact, both within their species and with the others around them.

Ecologists can also work in different areas: they can work on landscape scale projects, focusing on a single species and working with volunteers to complete the work; they can specialise in surveying for endangered species or classifying areas, using their knowledge to suggest areas where restoration projects should take place, or where housing developments could be made; they can work for specific companies, advising them on how to minimise the impact their work has on the planet, and so on. You are able to choose how you want to work within the discipline, whether that be in an office, for a company, with the government, or alongside a charity. Ecology is a little bit like a pick and mix stand, and you can follow whatever interests you the most.


Photo by Callum Evans


How do you become an ecologist?

As with any job in the vast field of biology, chances are you are going to need to start out with a bachelors degree. Many universities offer straight ecology degrees, but even if you choose to go with a different degree title, e.g. biology, zoology or marine science, most of the time you will be able to choose ecological courses within that.

A further degree (a Masters or PhD) is also something that should be considered, particularly as the field of ecology becomes more and more competitive. This won’t be necessary in all areas or ecological jobs though, but if you are interested in working on ecological, research projects then it will likely come in very handy.


Photo by Fran Anderson


If you would be more interested in surveying for endangered species, or classifying habitats, survey experience is what you need. I would advise looking into courses or volunteering opportunities that let you gain first hand experience of surveying, identifying, classifying and, where appropriate, handling species as well. All of our research projects allow volunteers to get experience in these areas, so check them out on our website! You can never have too much experience in this line of work and it will go a long way in helping you feel confident in your knowledge as well as securing employment.


Ecology is a rewarding and interesting sector to be in. Take the opportunities that are available for you to gain an understanding of whether ecology is for you and also to increase your experience along the way.


Title photo by Benedict Wood

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