MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: What is it like to be a zoologist?

Area: Zoology
Posted By: Kelleen Flaherty, Staff, Biology/Invertebrate Zoology expert
Date: Wed Nov 13 00:39:01 1996
Message ID: 847866722.Zo

Kim --

Thanks for your questions on zoology. I'll try to tell you as much as I can about what it's like to be a zoologist.

I got a Bachelor's Degree in Zoology in 1983 at George Washington University, in Washington DC. I was very interested in marine biology and marine animals. Most people think of exotic fish or whales or sea turtles when they hear the word "marine animals," but I, and all the other zoology students at the time at GW, worked on INVERTEBRATES: animals without backbones. Most of us did our research at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I studied two big groups in particular: crustaceans (shrimps, crabs, lobsters), and giant tube worms (the ones that live in the very deep sea thermal vents).

Zoologists who study the structure and evolutionary history of animals are usually considered to be NATURAL HISTORIANS - we're the kind of people who go out and collect things: bugs, worms, fish, snails, mice, lizards, coral, sponges... anything living (people who study plants the same way are also natural historians). Then, we take our specimens back to a laboratory to look at them more closely. We draw pictures of them and take photographs of them, and then look at them even MORE closely using a microscope - many of the animals zoologists collect are microscopic to begin with! We record all of our observations about their ANATOMY (how they're built), their ECOLOGY (where they live, how they interact with each other and their environment, what they eat), their LIFE HISTORIES (how they mate, what kind of offspring they have, how long it takes them to develop, how long they live). While PHYSIOLOGY (how an organism works on a chemical basis: how it uses oxygen (if it does), what kinds of chemicals it makes, how its genes work), arguably, is important, it tends to be a subspeciality concentrated on by other kinds of scientists (PHYSIOLOGISTS).

Zoologists tend to be experts on a very specific group. I worked on crustaceans, and knew a lot about that group in general, but I worked on a very specific kind of shrimp, about which I knew very much in detail. When a zoologist concentrates intensively on a group of organisms, they collect those abovementioned data ("data" is plural; it is referred to as "those" or "these"!) on ecology, morphology, and life history, and consider it all together for the whole group. Based on the information they have collected, many of them try to figure out what the EVOLUTIONARY RELATIONSHIPS of their organisms are. You have already done that yourself! When you find a bug ooutside, you wonder what it is, so you look at it closely, and maybe even use a book to identify it (if you're into that kind of thing), and conclude eventually that "It's some kind of... (beetle, moth, ant, grasshopper, etc.)" Zoologists are doing that on a much more detailed scale. If you were an expert entomologist, for example, and had just collected this bug, you would already know it was not only an ant, but a very particular ant; you would then take it back to your lab and find out EXACTLY what kind of ant it was and how it's related to other ants.

How do they do this? Basically, they keep a running list of all the CHARACTERS of the organism: how many spines it has on it's leg, whether or not its abdomen is hairy, what its size range is, how many segments are in its antennae, etc. These are MORPHOLOGICAL characters, and come from close inspection of the animal - visual inspection, dissection, microscopy, and even electron microscopy, which is a technique you can use to see the face of an ant magnified 100 thousand times or more! Recently, zoologists are also using MOLECULAR characters to help describe their research organism. Molecular characters are things like what kinds of proteins the organism has and what their DNA looks like if you take it apart and look at it base by base (the bases in DNA are those things that look like the "rungs on a ladder" when you look at a drawing of DNA). Obviously, these molecular characters require some sophisticated laboratory work to get, but they can be tremendously informative!

Once a zoologist feels she has collected enough morphological (and maybe molecular) data, she can construct a CLADOGRAM. A cladogram looks like a family tree - and that's just about exactly what it is. If you look at a geneaological tree of your family, you find yourself and your siblings at the bottom of the tree, but you're all joined together going back to an immediate ancestor - your parents. Likewise, your father and his siblings go back to an immediate ancestor - your paternal grandparents. A cladogram looks kind of like that (except each branch point does not represent a single generation, not are there two ancestors - there's only one). This technique is almost exclusively done by computers, into which you feed the data. By running a cladogram by computer, the analysis is subjected to any number of rigorous tests that check and the recheck the tree so as to get the best possible, most accurate representation of how the organisms evolved. Making cladograms is a standard technique - it's used by lots of different kinds of scientists, not just natural historian-zoologists; but they were the ones who started it!

So what do we do when we have all this information? We write a paper. In the paper we talk about all of the information we found, include drawings, photos, and cladograms (not ALL papers have this format, but this is a common one). The paper is submitted to a journal. If you were doing a big ant analysis, for example, you might submit your paper to AMERICAN ZOOLOGIST or SYSTEMATIC BIOLOGY or something more specialized like the JOURNAL OF THE ENTOMOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA. When the journal gets the paper, they send it out to other experts for PEER REVIEW. That means, your peers read your paper and look at your data, and write comments on it (the comments are returned to you anonymously). If your peers think your conclusions are really wrong, or that the paper needs more information, or that the techniques used to generate data were performed incorrectly, they will say so to the journal, who returns the paper to you for revision. If the paper is OK, the reviewers say so, and it's published.

SO WHAT, people who are not in the business (such as even your parents, maybe! My parents were always supportive, but could never quite understand why I WANTED to go out crawling around in swamps at low tide looking for worms) are inclined to ask, WHY did you crawl around in 200 foot trees in the Amazonian jungle collecting ants for two years, and spend another two years studying them so that you could write a paper that might not be accepted for publication??? Well clearly, first of all, you have to be a special kind of person to be a zoologist, and you probably already know who you are. "Peculiar," comes to mind, but hey, you'll ALWAYS be a hit at parties ("You do WHAT?!").

Here's why one studies zoology:

1) Knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The information has to be there if it's going to be taught. Zoologists are the ones who find out that snakes are poisonous, that birds are really reptiles, that fish evolved in fresh water, and that most of the described organisms on earth are beetles.

2) Conservation. "Save the endangered species!" is a popular hue and cry among the politically correct. Zoologists are the ones who tell you what's endangered, what's LIKELY to be endangered, and what's gone extinct. Things are going extinct every day, without any mourning on the part of the human populace because they simply don't know they exist. There are more UNDESCRIBED species of living things on earth than there are described - we don't even know what we're losing!

3) Environmental control. Zoologists are the ones who are going to tell you that if you spray to remove a particular kind of beetle from your corn crop, your corn crop is going to be devoured by something the beetle eats (aphids, maybe). Zoologists have recommended BIOLOGICAL control to avoid the use of pesticides - instead of putting dangerous chemicals on your crops, stick lots of parasitic wasp eggs out in your field (you can buy them commercially) - when they hatch, they kill the crop pests without damaging the crop itself. What happens if you bring a pretty plant home from the Far East after a visit? Why don't they let you do that? INTRODUCED SPECIES have wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, obliterating some of them entirely; stuff like purple loosestrife, kudzu, zebra mussels, gypsy moths, mediterranean fruit flies and africanized ("killer") bees. An ECOLOGIST will tell you you shouldn't do something like that, a ZOOLOGIST will tell you why (well, at least about the animals), because they know the organism.

4) Medical applications. So many different kinds of plants and animals have been used in breakthrough drug treatments - the endangered Yew tree, in California, for example, is the source for taxol, a chemical compound that shows some promise in treatment of cancer. African clawed toads have miraculous regenerative properties in their skin. Closely-related organ systems of other animals can be used as a source of hormones or other chemicals - or even the entire organ of a closely-related organism can be used in a human (baboon hearts, etc.). The catch? "Closely-related." You have to know what's closely related before you use them. Zoologists can predict what's closely related using their techniques of observation and analysis. What if we need the deadly venom of a particular snake to make antivenin, but the antivenin itself is too toxic? A zoologist can tell you what the next-closest related snake is - maybe IT has a related-but-less-deadly form of venom.

So, just what do you DO with a degree in zoology (this is another question your parents will be inclined to ask!)? Zoologists end up (surprise!) in zoos much of the time, caring for animals and educating the public. Some people with bachelor's degrees in zoology go on to become veterinarians. The natural-historian types, about which I have spoken mostly, tend to end up as conservation officers, college professors, museum curators, or in other education-related fields. You don't have to be a gregarious individual to be a zoologist (although being peculiar helps) - I've known many that sty holed up in their labs in the museum and do nothing but describe new species after new species after new species, publishing one monograph after another, contributing the general body of scientific knowledge that has accumulated since the dawn of culture.

Oh yes; zoologists also get asked lots of questions, from many different kinds of individuals. I work on insects now, and get at least three or four calls a month from people who have called the university asking about a particular bug that just bit them, ate most of their garden, or pupated in one of their house plants. This is the first time I've gotten a question from an entire class! I hope this has been useful to you. Best of luck in your efforts! E-mail me or the excellent MAD SCIENTIST NETWORK if I can help you with anything else!

Kelleen Flaherty
in Saint Louis

Re: What is it like to be a zoologist (1)?
Re: What is it like to be a zoologist (2)?
Re: What is it like to be a zoologist (vet's perspective)?

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