Zoological Society of Southern Africa (ZSSA)

Careers and Job Opportunities for Zoologists

Download “Making sense in a career in Zoology” edited by Dan Parker, Leigh Richards and Mark Keith.

Zoology is a very broad area of scientific study, and careers can be defined in several different ways. For example, one person might specialise in fish (an Ichthyologist) whereas another may specialise in mammals (a Mammalogist). Another might concentrate on the development of the early stages of life in both fish and mammals (an Embryologist or Developmental Biologist). Thus, specialists can be defined in many different ways. Here, we have tried to indicate the more general categories of careers for which employment may be available in South Africa. There is no special importance attached to the classification used; it simply reflects Zoology in the country at present and how jobs are described by the wide variety of agencies, institutions and companies engaged in Zoological research and employing Zoologists. Among others, these include the National and Provincial nature conservation agencies, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Medical Research Council (MRC), museums, universities, colleges, Zoological gardens, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Department Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), local authorities, game farms, firms of ecological consultants, pharmaceutical companies and many other private and state agencies

Job opportunities

The demand for Zoologists varies widely. In most parts of South Africa there are more posts than there are biology teachers so that one will almost certainly be able to get a teaching job, although this may not always be in the most convenient locality. Permanent positions are usually more easily available in applied than in “pure” fields. Openings for Entomologists and Fisheries Biologists, for example, are fairly common whereas there are a very limited number of university teaching posts, which are highly sought after because they give Zoologists an opportunity to do the research of their choice. Members of university staff are awarded research grants by outside agencies such as the National Research Foundation (NRF) to support postgraduate student research and to employ research workers in short-tern non-teaching contract posts. Where possible, opportunities for employment and the sorts of jobs available are given in each of the following sections discussing types of careers.

Types of careers

Follow the links to view descriptions of some of the many fields in which jobs are available for zoologists. They are in no specific order and openings are available in some fields more than in others. There is also, of necessity, a great deal of overlap between the fields. A Fisheries Biologist, for example, will probably also consider him/herself a Marine Biologist.

Aquatic Biologists study the special characteristics of life in environments dominated by water. This includes how organisms live in such environments and the management and conservation of them. Although Aquatic Biologists with a Zoological training are primarily concerned with aquatic animals, a broad knowledge of chemistry, geology, hydrology, statistics, botany, and microbiology are extremely valuable in understanding the complexities of the systems with which they are dealing. The general principles of aquatic biology apply to both marine and freshwater systems but there is a traditional division of aquatic systems between Marine Biologists and Freshwater Biologists (limnologists).

Marine Biologists seek to understand the physical and chemical environment of the seas and how these relate to the ecology of marine animals. Among other things, their studies often have practical applications. For example, they may study fish populations, assessing their productivity and establishing guidelines for their sustainable exploitation by man.

Marine Biologists will include Biological Oceanographers, who study all animal groups in the oceans, as well as researchers who focus on the larger marine animals including commercially exploitable fish (see the section on Fisheries Biology).

Many of the latter contribute to managing this valuable resource by providing scientific advice to the fishing industry. The interests of Marine Biologists extend from the open sea to sandy and rocky shores and estuaries and lagoons. Many have the opportunity to use scuba diving on the job and have appropriate training in diving as a professional skill and abide by certain regulations.

Marine biologists are employed by various research institutes (for example, the Oceanographic Research Institute and KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board), government organisations and departments, museums, aquaria, and universities.

Freshwater Biologists are concerned with understanding the functioning of inland water systems and the organisms in them. Water in South Africa is a scarce resource and freshwater biologists are often involved in the protection and use of natural waters, often in stimulating multidisciplinary teams with Chemists, Hydrologists, and Geologists.

There are several job opportunities for limnologists in South Africa. These range from positions at the technical level to those requiring a doctorate in Zoology. Limnologists may find employment with state departments responsible for monitoring and maintaining the quality of our limited water resources and the useful biological life they sustain (e.g. Department of Water Affairs & Forestry). Other employers of freshwater biologists include research institutes, universities, technikons, and firms of ecological consultants.

Fisheries Biology is a slightly more specialised branch of marine and freshwater biology. Marine fisheries are especially well developed along the west coast of South Africa but freshwater fisheries and the culture of fish, shellfish (e.g. oysters and prawns) in both inland and coastal waters are becoming increasingly important as yields of natural stocks decline. Fisheries Biologists study the rates of reproduction and growth of fish and fish stocks, factors that affect population sizes and distributions and methods of harvesting. They also assess the effects of harvesting or catch size on the remaining stocks of fish by means of mathematical models and use these to formulate guidelines for quotas that will ensure the sustainable use of valuable commercial stocks. In addition to specialized knowledge of Ichthyology, Fisheries Biologists usually have some training in other disciplines like ecology, limnology, population dynamics, and oceanography. The mathematical modelling of fish populations requires a background in statistics and computing.

Training in Fisheries Biology usually starts at the postgraduate level, although some universities do offer undergraduate courses in Fisheries Biology. Employment opportunities exist with various fisheries and Ichthyological institutes, the commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, technikons and universities. Good fisheries biologists seldom have trouble finding permanent positions.

Ecologists aim to understand interactions between organisms and their environments. These interactions in part shape the environments by determining, for example, the distributions and abundances of animals in them. The research approach of Ecologists may be either functional or evolutionary and the application of research results requires a thorough biological background and an ability to analyse data. In practice, Ecologists are frequently involved with conservation and land management, which requires intelligent interpretation and application of biological principles.

Students with an interest in Ecology are encouraged to major in Zoology. Some background in botany, statistics and computer science are also valuable and a higher university degree (M.Sc. or Ph.D.) is a prerequisite for those interested in research in Ecology or for those wishing to play a key role in conservation and other environmental issues.

Graduates with a background in Ecology find employment in national, provincial and municipal institutions involved with conservation and/or environmental utilisation. These include National and Provincial conservation agencies and the Department of Environmental Affairs & Tourism. Ecologists are also in demand in private game parks, private consulting firms, environmental divisions of large corporations or non-governmental organisations with an interest in the environment and conservation, and industries whose by-products may adversely affect the environment

Ethology is the study of animal behaviour and behavioural ecology is the study of the survival value of behaviour. It is called “behavioural ecology” because the way in which behaviour contributes to survival and reproduction depends on ecology. Thus, in order to answer questions about the way a particular behaviour (e.g. territoriality) contributes to survival we need to have background information on aspects of the animal’s ecology the kind of food it eats, and its availability, density of competitors, predators, nesting or denning requirements and so on. These ecological pressures will determine whether territoriality is favoured and will enhance the animal’s survival or be detrimental to it. The behavioural ecologist therefore adopts a functional approach to animal behaviour, trying to explain it in terms of the animal maximising its gene transfer to the next generation within the constraints of its ecology. Behavioural ecology requires a thorough knowledge of three major disciplines; evolutionary theory, ethology and ecology.

Ethologists and behavioural ecologists may find employment in purely academic posts at universities and museums but, because of the functional aspects of the discipline, can also be employed in research posts within organisations concerned with conservation or management of animal populations be it aimed at maintaining sustainable yields of harvested species (e.g. fish or game animals) or in controlling populations of pests such as disease-bearing insects or predators of domestic stock.

Any aspect of animal behaviour may be investigated, the most common being foraging behaviour, group living (particularly in terms of predation and predator avoidance), territoriality, mating systems, parental care, co-operation and communication

Medical and Veterinary Zoology is a branch of Zoology that studies the role of animals in diseases. Unicellular organisms (protozoans), parasitic worms, insects, ticks, mites and spiders, as well as hosts for these (mammals and birds), often play an important role in diseases of man, livestock, wild animals, and pets and in diseases transmitted from animals to man (zoonoses). For example, malaria is transmitted from man to man, rabies from animals to man and redwater from animals via ticks to other animals. The study and control of parasites and disease-carrying animals is consequently of great importance in agriculture, veterinary science and medicine.

Medical and veterinary zoologists find employment with National and Provincial conservation agencies, universities, agriculture, medical research institutes (e.g. South African Institute for Medical Research), veterinary research institutes, and medical schools.

Molecular and Cell Biology has, in recent years, become an increasingly important aspect in all fields of biology, but especially in Zoology. Studies on topics as diverse as conservation biology, taxonomy, evolution, physiology, developmental biology, and gene expression can all be studied at the cellular level. Most work at the molecular and cellular level requires specialised laboratories and equipment for extracting and working with DNA or proteins, although collecting material may involve trips into the field. Specialised training in molecular and cell techniques is usually gained at the postgraduate level and a good background in biochemistry, microbiology, genetics or molecular biology is strongly recommended.

Job opportunities for molecular and cell biologists are to be found in university departments or research institutions carrying out research in the Zoological, agricultural and medical fields as well as in industries with a similar focus.

Museums offer a wide variety of opportunities for Zoologists interested in research, curation and education. Most museum Zoologists collect, preserve, document, maintain, and study valuable animal collections. Studies mostly focus on the diversity of animals and their relationships with one another (called systematics). This discipline focuses on determining unique characteristics of species and higher taxa, what features taxa have in common with one another and what biological causes underpin differences and shared characters. The systematist is also interested in describing and assessing variation within and between taxa and is concerned with speciation, evolution, the structure of natural animal populations and biogeography. These aspects of museum science, in collaboration with museum exhibition staff, are presented in interpretive displays for the pleasure and education of the visiting public.

Most Zoologists employed in museums are specialists in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, molluscs (Malacologists), insects, or fossils (Palaeontologists). Some may even specialise is specific insect groups like moths and butterflies (Lepidopterists) or beetles (Coleopterists).

Due to the increasing call on museums to act as consultants and to do contract research for commercial companies, contract positions in various specialist fields are also sometimes available at museums. For the Zoologist who is not interested in research, museums offer employment as collection managers, education officers, public relations officers, exhibition officers, and artists.

Resource conservation is a broad term encompassing modern conservation practices aimed at the wise use of the environment and its resources through the management of natural systems. This requires a thorough knowledge of ecology since ecological principles provide the basis for management of, for example, national parks, nature reserves, and freshwater and marine resources (both for sustained production and to restore damaged natural environments so they can be productive again). Research in resource conservation is normally problem-driven and consequently applied rather than pure. While a career in conservation management can include exercises like game capture, animal translocation, aerial and ground game counts, and maybe radio-tracking (all those exciting aspects that one sees on television!), it should be emphasized that these comprise just a small aspect of resource conservation.

Also included is the need to add to our knowledge of animal diversity, distributions and behaviour that are contributed by specialist Zoologists like Mammalogists, Ornithologists, Herpetologists and Ichthyologists. Invertebrates are extremely important animals in most systems yet inventories and distributions of these are poorly documented. A new sub-discipline of resource conservation is conservation biology. This field depends on a strong theoretical background in genetics, population dynamics and ecology and can contribute to the long-term survival of plant and animal communities.

Jobs in resource conservation are to be found among national or provincial conservation bodies, private game reserves, non-governmental environmental organisations, environmental divisions of large corporations, environmental consultancies and at research institutions.

In order to conserve biodiversity, it is essential to know what species are present in a country, province or area, and exactly where they occur. It is also crucial to know the name of species because this allows access to information about whether the species is threatened, rare, or of special cultural or biological significance. For many animals, only a specialist can provide this information. These specialists are called Taxonomists. They not only identify and describe new species that they discover but also go on expeditions to survey areas that we know little about. Many Taxonomists are also Biogeographers: they plot the distribution of different species, identify patterns of distribution and the processes that determine these distributions (e.g. temperature, altitude and vegetation) using GIS, and identify areas of special importance for conservation. Taxonomists and Biogeographers often work in museums, but they can also be employed in conservation agencies and universities.

Although careers exist in science journalism, success in this field depends on the qualities of the individual. The ability and background to interpret science and present it in a way that is understandable and interesting to the lay public is a rare talent and a flair for lively and evocative writing, coupled with a high regard for factual accuracy are essential. Success in journalistic writing for newspapers and magazines consequently requires imagination, knowledge and skill and there is a demand for people that have these attributes. The reason that newspapers pay relatively little attention to science reporting is due more to a shortage of competent writers than to a lack of interest. There are also opportunities for technical scientific writing in various aspects of publishing, including commissioning and copy editing for both the institutional and private sector. This aspect is becoming increasingly important as these bodies have become much more market orientated and publicity conscious.

Animal drawing and painting offer yet other careers through the illustration of books and the preparation of technical drawings for museums and other research institutes, especially those where taxonomic research is undertaken. Similarly, animal photography offers some scope for the freelance individual. Successful animal photographers need to be especially talented photographically as well as possessing a wide knowledge of animals and their habitats. Many institutions and other agencies employ full-time photographers to document the lives and behaviours of animals in their natural environments. Television also offers a market for films on animals, both for general broadcasting and for educational purposes. The sophistication of this medium requires considerable technical competence as well as sound zoological knowledge. The trend to encourage more school children to study science and mathematics, now gathering momentum after years of relative neglect, will also create opportunities for those who wish to communicate the excitement and importance of science through the written word, film and computer-based instruction.

Librarians with a good knowledge of science are also in demand, particularly at institutions with large technical libraries.

Suitably trained Zoologists have an important place in our schools, colleges, technikons and universities. In teaching biology at schools, dedicated zoologists play a vital role in a creative field where they have the potential to influence the attitudes of thousands of children for life. Teachers can awaken the interests of children to the secrets of life, the importance of the environment and to the proper management and use of our natural resources. Teachers can also show their pupils the way to exciting but little-known careers.

The minimum requirement to teach biology at the senior secondary level is a Higher Teacher’s Diploma with Zoology and Botany as fields of speciality or a B.Sc. degree with Zoology as a major subject and at least some courses in Botany. Suitable training can be obtained either through colleges or in an additional year of study at university after the completion of a B.Sc. degree. Employment opportunities are usually readily available because there is always a shortage of qualified biology teachers.

Universities, technikons and colleges also often have vacancies for lecturers although, in general, a higher degree (M.Sc. or Ph.D.) is required. Academic posts generally offer the greatest degree of freedom of choice for the pursuit of one’s own Zoological interests. Campuses are intellectually stimulating places and the interactions with young people can be very rewarding. The different universities tend to be specialised in their major research interests and may also differ somewhat in their teaching philosophies. Success will greatly depend on the enthusiasm, determination, and dedication of the individual.