Ecology and Conservation Biology

A green and black-striped caterpillar crawling on a stem

Ecologists study the relationships between living organisms and their physical environment, seeking to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.


Pursue a Career in Ecology and Conservation Biology

Ecologists help us better understand the world around us. From natural resource management to public health, the role of an ecologist is to “help us improve our environment, manage our natural resources, and protect human health.” 

Read an interview with Conservation Biologist Debbie Crouse

NAAEE: How did you get interested in pursuing an environmental career?
Debbie: It was roundabout for me, actually. I started out studying meteorology in college, but after my sophomore year I decided to take a break and work for a while. At one point I had a summer job in Colorado, and in the evenings I used to sit outside near a beaver pond and play my guitar. During that time I realized how important it is for me to spend time in nature.

NAAEE: What direction did your education take after that?
Debbie: When I went back to school, I knew I wanted to focus on a career that would allow me to be outside, close to nature. I ended up getting a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD all in zoology. At the time, there weren’t as many curriculum options as there are now for people interested in biology or environmental studies, so I basically created a course of study that was very similar to what is now called conservation biology.

NAAEE: So what’s a typical day on the job like for you?
Debbie: (Laughing): Well, it’s ironic, because these days I’m inside in my office a lot, in front of a computer. But for years I did have jobs that got me outdoors, and I got to travel to a lot of different places. My career has evolved, but I still love what I do because I feel it’s the most effective way for me to help conservation efforts on a large scale. So to answer your question, what I do now, on a typical day at work, is to draft policy and guidance that other Fish and Wildlife Service biologists around the country use to develop recovery plans for endangered species. That covers a lot of ground, and a lot of species!

NAAEE: When you were out doing fieldwork, did you focus on a particular animal?
Debbie: I conducted research on various animals, from frogs to birds, and my PhD dissertation was on sea turtle biology and conservation. I spent a lot of time walking around on beaches, surveying sea turtle nests, and flying in small airplanes over the ocean, counting swimming sea turtles. And once, in Australia, I took part in a turtle rodeo!

NAAEE: Say what?!
Debbie: You heard right! Basically, a turtle rodeo involves jumping out of a boat onto a swimming turtle. You grab hold of its shell—that can be tricky; in some cases you’re talking about a couple hundred pounds worth of turtle—and you push the tail end down so the turtle has to swim up, towards the water’s surface. When its front flippers come out of the water, it can be lifted into a boat, where it’s weighed, measured, and tagged before being let go.

NAAEE: Wow. Sea-turtle wrangling—that must rank pretty high in the “most memorable moments of my career” category!
Debbie: It’s right up there. And then there are the “memorable for other reasons” moments. I did my Master’s research on wood frogs, part of which involved sitting very still while observing frogs in the wild. The place where I was observing them was—well, let’s just call it “mosquito heaven.” There were so many mosquitoes there ready to eat me alive that the frogs started jumping on my legs to pick off the ones that had landed on my jeans!

NAAEE: Let’s get back to the more pleasant memorable moments! What’s one of your proudest accomplishments as a biologist?
Debbie: There are several things I’ve gotten to do that I feel have made a difference. For example, some of my research on sea turtle populations has contributed to regulations designed to protect them, such as requiring shrimp fishermen in the southeastern U.S. to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their shrimp nets. Turtles can get stuck in these nets and drown, but TEDs allow them to escape.

NAAEE: Do you have a favorite endangered species recovery story?
Debbie: I have lots of them! Of course, everyone hears about the comeback of big beautiful species like whooping cranes. But I also get excited by the recovery of some of the less glamorous animals. For example, I was recently involved in processing the paperwork to remove the Lake Eerie Watersnake from the endangered species list. I love that recovery story because so many people worked hard to help the public understand that this snake has an important role to play in its habitat.

NAAEE: Do you have a favorite animal, endangered or otherwise?
Debbie: I have many, many, many. Obviously, I have a soft spot for sea turtles! And one of my favorite birds in the whole world is the cedar waxwing. I just love its soft grey plumage and cheerful little call. Another favorite is the wolverine. To me wolverines epitomize the idea of wilderness, and I’ve wanted to see one in the wild ever since I was a little kid. It’s still on my wish list!

NAAEE: Any advice for people thinking about a career in biology and conservation?
Debbie: Yes: Cultivate your skills in working with people. So much of conservation depends on that. I think people often don’t realize just how important human interaction is when they pursue a career in biology—I didn’t—but it’s true. Another thing I’ve learned is that things may turn out differently than you originally planned, but that’s OK. I got into biology and conservation because I wanted to be out in nature as much as possible. But when it comes to achieving a lot for conservation, I know now that, with my set of skills, I can accomplish just as much or more in a job like I’m doing now, which involves sitting behind a desk and interacting with people. I may have to go on a vacation to actually get out in the wilderness! —but I feel really good about what I can achieve in my job.

Read an interview with Earth Sangha Founders Chris Bright and Lisa Bright

On restoring damaged and disturbed forests and meadows by removing non-native invasive plants and replacing them with the native trees, wildflowers, and other plants that form the basis of healthy ecosystems

NAAEE: How did Earth Sangha get started?
Chris: I was working as an analyst at an organization that researches environmental issues. It was my job to learn about the issues, but I felt like I wasn’t really making any difference. At the same time, Lisa and I were looking for a way to express our Buddhist values in an environmentally active way. We decided to form a group that would take direct action—a kind of community of people interested in working to restore natural habitats. “Sangha” is a Buddhist word for “community,” so Earth Sangha became the name of the group.

NAAEE: What’s involved in restoring habitats?
Lisa: Lots of physical work outside and lots of volunteers willing to do it. For example, depending on the situation, one day we may focus on pulling out invasive garlic mustard that’s taking over a forest floor, and another day we may remove English ivy that’s smothering trees. Eventually we plant native plants in areas where we’ve cleared out invasives. But before we even get to that point, we have to collect the seeds of native plants in the wild so we can propagate them in our wild plant nursery.
Chris: The nursery is really at the heart of the work we do. We grow more than 200 species of native plants there—trees, shrubs, grasses, vines, ferns, and lots more. All of those plants need care: watering, mulching, re-potting, etc. More volunteers! We also get help from interns. We have an internship program for young people who are interested in learning about native plants and how to propagate them.

NAAEE: How did you learn so much about native plants?
Lisa: Mostly by getting outdoors and experiencing nature. We don’t have botany degrees or anything like that. We’ve learned on the job. And the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know!
Chris: Right. At first, you want to learn the names of things—what kind of tree is that; what’s that flower—and the more you learn which plant is which, the more you start to learn the relationships between them. Gradually you develop a deeper appreciation of how all the different plants, and all the animals that live around them, are knitted up together. There’s no end to the connections! And there’s so much about these relationships that humans don’t understand yet.

NAAEE: Do you have any LOL moments that you care to share?
Lisa: It’s kind of embarrassing, but OK. Once I was out hiking by myself, checking out the plants in a forested area. I saw some wildflowers in the distance and decided to take a closer look. To get to them, I had to cross a muddy area. The mud looked dry enough, so I stepped on it. At first it held my weight. But suddenly one of my legs sank down, almost like something pulled it! I shifted my weight to the other foot—and down it went too. I was completely stuck up to my knees in mud. I didn’t have a cell phone, and there was no one around to help. After a struggle, I finally managed to pull myself out—but my shoes stayed behind in the mud. I had to walk back to my car over a rocky trail in bare feet, covered with mud!
Chris: I had a “police encounter” once. I was working out in a meadow. Somebody who was driving by apparently saw my car’s roof sticking up from behind some tall grasses, but they couldn’t see me. I guess they thought my car was abandoned, so they called the police. Two squad cars showed up and I rushed over to see what was going on. I was draped with mosquito netting and carrying a scythe – you know, that mowing implement that the grim reaper is always pictured with. Needless to say, I had some explaining to do.

NAAEE: Restoring habitats isn’t the kind of work that shows instant results. It might take years for an area overrun with invasive plants to be returned to a healthier ecosystem. What keeps you keep going in the meantime?
Chris: Once in a while we’ll find a rare plant that’s known to be on the decline. It’s really exciting to be able to collect some seeds from it so we can grow it in our wild plant nursery. For example, we’ve discovered some patches of a couple of unusual milkweed species known to be in trouble, and we’ve been able to add them to the plants we propagate in the nursery. But it’s not just about finding and growing rare plants; it’s also about the animals that depend on them. In the case of the milkweeds, there’s a bunch of different insect pollinators that depend on them, including monarch butterflies. Helping the plants survive helps the insects. It helps people, too; our food supply would be in big trouble without pollinators.

NAAEE: What keeps you up at night?
Chris: We think a lot about extinctions and what the future might be like. When it comes to plants, in particular, human understanding of them is so limited that we don’t even know what we’re losing. But that makes Lisa and me even more determined to try and preserve what we can, because what’s living and growing here now on this planet is so amazing!

NAAEE: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Chris: I love what I do! I enjoy figuring out how to solve lots of different problems, and I like collaborating with people. One of the projects that I’m particularly excited about is our partnership with smallholding farmers in the Dominican Republic. We’ve developed a program that helps them make a good living while protecting and restoring the tropical forests on their land. One aspect of the program is their coffee crop. The farmers grow coffee in the shade of the forest, rather than cutting the forest down.  We buy the coffee beans from them for a much better than average price. We sell the coffee here in the U.S., and all profits go back into efforts to help the farmers while preserving the forests on their land.
Lisa: One thing that excites me is seeing some of our young volunteers really get into the work. Some of them may not even like working outside at first. They get dirty and uncomfortable. But a lot of them actually start having fun, and they come back again and again to learn about native plants and help restore habitats. Some have gone on to study environmental sciences in college. I feel good knowing the future is in their hands!

What should I study?

Educational background may include classes or a degree in:

  • Natural Resources
  • Environmental Sciences
  • Hydrology
  • Soil Science
  • Wildlife
  • Habitat
  • Fisheries Science
  • Biology
  • Zoology

Where can I find a career in ecology and conservation biology?

  • Wildlife Centers
  • Arboretums
  • Research Institutes, Laboratories and Universities
  • Non-Profit Organizations
  • State Departments
  • Federal Agencies
  • Conservation Commissions
  • Conservancies
  • Wildlife Foundations

Position titles and career specializations might include:

  • Ecological Restoration
  • Aquatic Biologist
  • Fisheries Technician
  • Habitat Specialist
  • Phenology
  • GIS Ecological Data Specialist
  • Fisheries and Wildlife Biological Scientist
  • Prescribed Fire Specialist
  • Conservation Technician

What are some other ways to gain experience?

Students can begin gaining research experience as an undergraduate. Depending on the institution, students can apply to summer fellowships or research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) that are funded by the National Science Foundation. Also consider internships like the Scientists in Parks Program, a partnership between The Ecological Society of America and the National Park Service.