Zoology Degrees: Everything you should know
Zoology is a branch of biology which specializes in the study of animals both living and extinct, including their anatomy and physiology, embryology, genetics, evolution, classification, habits, behavior and distribution. If you’re fascinated by and love animals, this course could be for you, enabling you to choose from a range of zoology specializations and opening doors to zoology careers in areas such as ecology, conservation and research.
Read on for an overview of zoology courses, specializations, careers and key skills.
Zoology is one of the broadest sciences due to the vast variety of animals and the complexity of processes occurring within them. Typically offered as a Bachelor of Science (BSc), zoology courses will often start with a general study of the key concepts of biosciences, including essential molecules, genes and cells. As well as focusing on topics such as taxonomy, ecology, basic biochemistry, biodiversity and animal behavior, you will learn how to conserve and care for animal life (specialized degrees focusing on conservation are available, if this is your area of interest). You’ll also look at the zoology of invertebrates and vertebrates, primates and marine life, with many universities also offering optional modules in parasites and infectious disease (not for the faint-hearted!).
Most BSc Zoology degrees are three or four years long, depending on the country in which you study, and you’ll typically be able to specialize your degree as you progress. You’ll explore the latest laboratory techniques and apply what you have learned in field work.
Many universities offer the opportunity to undertake zoology fieldwork overseas, perhaps as part of a ‘sandwich course’, which will enable you to gain a deeper understanding of more unfamiliar animals and their habitats.
This is a science-based subject, so you’ll need to have a good level of background knowledge. Many universities will ask that you have previously studied chemistry and biology, and if you’re in the UK, you will most likely need A Levels in these, although some universities are happy to accept students with A Levels in any science disciplines. It’s also often beneficial (but not essential) to have studied psychology, physics and/or mathematics.
You’ll usually need to submit a personal statement (or statement of purpose) outlining your reasons for choosing your selected university and course.
A specialization in marine zoology/biology will focus on the behavior, physiology, and ecology of marine organisms. You’ll also look at the processes and functions of marine ecosystems, gaining a deeper understanding of the diversity of aquatic life and how food chains are affected by factors such as global warming and fisheries. You’ll study modules such as fish ecology, marine vertebrates and invertebrates, marine pollution, conservation methods, parasitology, microbiology, and molecular biology. Marine zoology specializations will also enable you to gain analytical skills in geographic information systems (GIS) and take part in field trips.
If you choose to specialize in conservation, your course will focus on the ecology, management and protection of animal life. You’ll generally start with an introduction to key zoology themes, before becoming more focused on conservation and management, with modules on the behavioral, nutritional and reproductive biology of zoo animals, as well as the hygiene, health and welfare of captive animals. You’ll gain both theoretical knowledge and practical, transferable skills in this topic, to equip you for zoology careers in wildlife conservation and ecology.
A zoology degree with a specialization in animal behavior will draw on biology, psychology, ecology, ethology and anthropology to examine the ways in which animals interact with each other and their environment. You’ll examine the activities and mannerisms of different animals, finding answers to ‘what, how and why’ questions about their actions, such as mating, hibernation, caring for their young, finding food and much more. This specialization could lead to careers in animal training or behavioral research.
Ecology and evolutionary biology
If you’ve ever wondered about the history of life on Earth, including how different species evolved and developed over millions of years, and what affects the location and abundance of a species, this specialization could be for you. You’ll look at animal diversity from a genetic perspective, while the ecology aspect involves the study of animals’ interactions with each other and their surroundings. This option will allow you to gain skills in the survey, investigation and modeling of ecological and evolutionary processes, as well as an understanding of how evolutionary ecology can be applied to current issues in zoology.
Other zoology specializations you could study include: microbiology, zoology with psychology, zoology with biotechnology, pre-veterinary zoology (mainly available in the US), and various branches of zoology related to individual animals, such as equine science.
Your zoology degree will provide you with a range of transferable skills to suit a wide variety of roles, which are by no means limited to work in zoos or wildlife parks. Your degree could also open doors to roles in government agencies, research institutes, universities, animal and environmental charities, environmental consultancies and more. Read on for an overview of zoology careers you might like to consider following your degree.
If you want to expand your study of animals and their behavior into a full career (usually specializing in an area such as ecology, herpetology or parasitology, amongst others), you could pursue work as a professional zoologist. Depending on your specialism, your tasks could include carrying out field and laboratory research, studying animals in their natural environment or in captivity, identifying and monitoring species, producing detailed technical reports, giving presentations and publishing your findings in journals.
Your BSc in Zoology degree may be sufficient for some zoologist roles, but heavily research-based positions will usually require postgraduate study. You’ll also be expected to have some work experience in conservation or other related areas. Alongside your passion for the subject, key attributes include patience, the ability to focus for long periods, and the capacity to conduct organized, accurate and detailed work.
Ecologists study the relationship between organisms (plants, people and animals) and their environments, analyzing entire ecosystems. You’ll usually specialize in a particular environment and possibly a particular animal/plant species. Your role is likely to begin with fieldwork to conduct surveys and record your findings, with additional tasks as your career progresses. The exact work you’ll undertake depends on your employer and the role’s purpose, but you might be involved with taxonomy (classifying organisms); researching the impact of human activity on environments; or testing samples to investigate issues such as pollution. You’ll become proficient at preparing reports, and will need to keep up to date with new environmental policies and regulations.
Marine scientists research the sea and study its interactions with marine organisms, sea floors, coastal areas and the atmosphere. They collect data and samples using processes such as geographic information systems (GIS) and use the resulting information to give advice on issues such as climate change, sea-based energy technologies and environmental impacts. Depending on the role, you may undertake long and physically demanding field trips at sea, calling for resilience and adaptability. To progress your career, you’ll usually need to specialize in a particular branch of marine science, such as coastal management or fisheries biology.
Nature conservation officer
Nature conservation officers work to protect, manage and improve the environment through conservation work, publicity and scientific monitoring. They advise organizations on a range of environmental issues, including air, land and water contamination, waste management and recycling, renewable energy and more. This career may appeal if you specialized in environmental conservation or a related field during your zoology degree. Possessing a relevant master’s degree and/or work experience in this area will also be advantageous.
Other zoology careers
Other zoology career options you could consider include: laboratory technician, animal caretaker, toxicologist, higher education lecturer, biomedical scientist and environmental education officer. Another option is a role as a veterinary surgeon – in the US, you can often study a pre-veterinary zoology track to give you a head start if you intend to progress to veterinary school.