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The Real Poop

If you know deep down that trees are made for hugging, and that the flora and fauna on this good Earth should really, truly all get along, then your career choice is clear.


And those dedicated folks who strap on big rubber hip-waders, pull on those galoshes and dive headlong into this vocational swamp are called ecologists.

That's what you want to be when you grow up.

Ecologists are the scientists who study the relationship between living things and their environment. They may be the first ones to notice, during a quiet hike on a trail near local toxic waste dump, that the bees buzzing around hikers' tuna fish sandwiches have two heads. Bees? Pollution? Mutation? Zombie bees? What’s going on?!

An ecologist is trained to ask questions like this. It takes an ecologist to ask such questions on weekend hikes.

Ecologists zero in on how environmental factors—whether they be man-made (i.e. industrialization) or biological (temperature, rainfall)—affect living organisms and their happy homes. They look at how living creatures that make up the outside world rely on a complex and (hopefully) balanced arrangement for everything to grow and thrive. An ecologist's goal is to study how that balance is struck, and to work to keep it nice and even on that teeter-totter, especially when the bully jumps on and screws up all that is right in the world.

A gig as an entry-level ecologist can be stressful, sorry to say. There will likely be long and odd hours, including weekend work. And if you're out in the field, the work can be pretty grueling at times as well. Expect to spend plenty of time outdoors on your hands and knees, reaching into dark muddy holes on the hottest of hot days.

On the job, ecologists may track how the plant and animal populations at a state park have been affected by recent preservation efforts. They'll be keeping an eye on natural resources or looking for ways to counter reduced biodiversity in an urban setting. They may also spend plenty of time at a lab bench analyzing new seed samples taken from a biotechnology plant. Poring over animal excrement to learn more about what's on the menu for those creatures is another option. It's a dirty (and stinky) job, but someone has to do it.

But the path of the marsh-dwelling ecologist isn't the only way to go. If the notion of investigating animal droppings doesn't get your motor running, don't necessarily write off the career. Many ecologists focus on the educational aspects of ecology and maintaining the environment. They can make their careers working in museums that focus on the historical aspects of the environment and environmental change. National parks also hire ecologists to play an educational role, acting as guides and area experts to curious visitors. So rest easy: A passion for animal poop is not mandatory.

No doubt there's a lot of education and experience that goes into becoming a successful ecologist. You need an undergraduate degree in something scientific—biology, chemistry and the like. And, to get a bigger bang for your buck, graduate science degrees wouldn't hurt.

Over and above getting the academic chops, ecologists need to hone other skills. The first is logical thinking and the ability to remain objective. Nature isn't always going to be kind and accommodating, placing in front of you that perfect piece of data at your convenience. What if you've spent the last three months studying the effects of drought on cactus needles, and it just happens to pour when you are ready to collect the last of your samples? It takes a certain mindset to refrain from tearing out your hair and instead find a way to work through these sorts of inevitable problems.

Writing and oral communication are other important aspects of these jobs. Whether you are presenting your findings on bald eagle nesting patterns in Washington State or testifying as an expert in a lawsuit over an oil spill or other environmental disaster, communicating your ideas clearly is essential in getting your message heard, understood, and put into practice. Being fluent in squirrel might come in handy in the field, but you still do need to talk to humans every once in a while. Aw, nuts.

Patience also pays dividends for ecologists. Projects are often long-term and results may be collected slowly, over months or even years. For example, the effects of pollution from a new manufacturing plant will not only affect a deer's everyday diet, but population dynamics and life history patterns, as well. You'll be playing a long game in this field, so don't expect the same rush of immediate satisfaction you might get from finding a quarter under the couch cushion.

While ecologists do play a role in urban areas, a large amount of the work tends to take place in far-flung rural locations, observing natural behavior independent of human input. This might not be the right career move if you go bonkers without gossip and chatter. But if you can think of no better way to spend your time than hunkering down and silently observing, this is the gig for you.

And perhaps most importantly, ecologists are defined by their curiosity. The entire foundation of the work is built around the search for answers to a slew of apparent and hidden questions all around us. Not everyone will notice that nifty kind of moss growing on the side of a tree, but a great ecologist might.

Even the instruments ecologists use to play sweet music in this organic orchestra can require some creativity. Sure, these tools of the ecology trade are pretty familiar to most people. They use everyday items, like plastic bags and tweezers for much of the field work. But some of the most fun in this type of work is rigging together your own contraption for the job at hand. It'll be the ecology MacGyver in you that notices a net, straws, and plastic cup and instantly thinks of an insect aspirator—the contraption that will help you collect the little buggers that can't be picked up with just a pair of tweezers.

But just think of all the cool stuff you could be doing once you land that career! For instance, a group of ecologists just discovered that the more red ladybugs are, the more deadly they are. This research wasn't conducted in the field, but these researchers actually bred their own ladybugs – and all had exactly seven black spots so no one got jealous. These little red bugs were fed either a high-quality diet (think filet mignon) or low-quality one (perhaps Slim Jims). And low and behold, the bugs fed the filet were redder and produced more toxic chemicals than their counterparts.

The researchers think that if ladybugs eat healthier, they can invest more energy in creating these toxins to prevent them from being eaten. I'll bet the next time you see a ladybug, you'll think twice about its red color and potential toxins—just don't ponder out loud or someone might send you to the loony bin.