What is an ecologist? As an ecologist, you study ecology and observe environmental patterns. Your observations and analyses provide insight into the ways that changes in the environment - both natural and human-caused - dictate the behaviours of different species. Your work also helps show how interactions between ecosystems, species, and the environment impact the planet.

At a Glance

Imagine standing knee-deep in a fast-moving, frigid creek 20 metres from where it runs into a spectacular alpine lake. In front of you is a large fishing net strung between the creek's banks in which five enormous bull trout have been caught.

You are an ecologist and you've been here for two weeks gathering data on the endangered bull trout population.

Two decades ago, the province wanted to encourage sport fishing and tourism in the area, so it introduced rainbow and brown trout to the lake. These new species became direct competitors with the bull trout for food and habitat, sending the bull trout population into sharp decline.

Years of study and work have been dedicated to reviving the bull trout population by removing the introduced fish. You are here to see if these measures are working.

Several times a day, you wade out nets to grab the fish that have been caught and bring them to your mobile station on the bank. One at a time, you put the bull trout in a basin of water with a bit of anaesthetic that temporarily sedates the fish so you can work with each one for about 10 minutes.

When the fish is sufficiently calm, you take it out of the basin and check for an identification chip implanted just under the skin. Once you have identified the fish, you measure its length and weigh it. You then put the fish in another tank, where you will keep it until the anaesthetic's effects have worn off and the fish can be safely returned to the creek.

Then, you will compare the data from this year to years previous. The ID chip lets you track each fish individually so you can check if it is growing longer and gaining weight, indications of an abundant food supply.

The ID chip also lets you measure recruitment rates by counting how many new juveniles are caught without chips, as well as death rates by counting how many fish from last year didn't return to the creek. These factors will allow you to evaluate the recovery of the lake's bull trout population.

After a couple long weeks in the field, you will return to your office and begin analyzing all the data using statistical software to indicate the size and growth of the bull trout population and whether it is going to survive in the lake.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical duties that an ecologist might encounter:

  • Develop and test hypotheses about populations, communities, and ecosystem function.
  • Conduct field, lab, and theoretical research, including collecting and analyzing water and soil samples and wildlife specimens.
  • Analyze field and laboratory data using statistics and mathematical models.
  • Study plant and animal characteristics over extended periods of time, for example, life history patterns, population size, diet and habitat use, and behaviour.
  • Stay current on environmental laws and regulations.
  • Use modeling techniques to assess the potential impact of changes to the ecosystem, for example the introduction of new species.
  • Create reports and make presentations to educate individuals, schools, clubs, and interest groups about ecosystem processes, species relationships, and the natural or human impacts on these processes and relationships
  • Study ecosystem attributes over long periods of time, noting characteristics such as species composition, connectivity of habitats, and patterns of natural and human disturbance

Work Environment

The main role of an ecologist is to study and observe environmental patterns. As a result, ecologists work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to:

The office:

  • Entering and analyzing data, including spatial mapping, statistical analysis, and Geographic Information Systems
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and the public, and presenting report findings to clients
  • Preparing computer models based on research to illustrate and manipulate ecosystem structure
  • Compiling data and preparing reports and scientific articles

The lab:

  • Processing samples collected in the field, including count and measure organisms, analyzing samples, and conducting genetic analysis
  • Conducting lab experiments
  • Maintaining and preparing equipment for fieldwork

The field:

  • Studying wildlife and plant populations, including collecting samples and specimens
  • Observing the impact of invasive species on native communities
  • Using a GPS for capturing field data
  • Using Geographic Information Systems to analyze, evaluate, and prepare information

Note: with regards to fieldwork, your work is heavily dependent on the seasons and the specific ecosystems that you are investigating.

Where to Work

There are several places to find ecologist jobs and employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Private corporations such as manufacturers of agricultural products, forestry companies, and oil and gas companies
  • Conservation authorities and centres, zoological parks, and aquariums
  • Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations

Search for jobs on the ECO Canada Job Boad

Education and Skills

If you are considering an ecologist career, you should have an interest in:

  • Biology
  • Calculus
  • Chemistry
  • English
  • Computer science

For progression into a senior or supervisory position as an ecologist, you will likely need a graduate or doctorate degree.

Individuals that hold only an undergraduate degree are more likely to be placed in non-research positions involving laboratory tests and/or collecting field data.

If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an ecologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Ecology
  • Biology
  • Botany
  • Environmental Planning
  • Marine biology
  • Conservation Biology
  • Environmental Science
  • Geology

Although it is not necessary to be certified in order to work as an ecologist, some practitioners choose to apply for certification. The requirements for this designation vary among provinces. Alberta for example has the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists (ASPB).

Other certification that may be an asset include:


Hard/ Technical Skills (skills obtained through formal education and training programs)

  • Environmental consulting
  • Microsoft office
  • Geographic Information Systems
  • Statistical methods
  • Risk assessment
  • Data analysis

Soft Skills (personal attributes and characteristics)

  • Oral and written communication
  • Resource management
  • Organizational skills
  • Creativity
  • Time management
  • Report writing
  • Logical thinking

Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with soft skills. Watch our free webinar “Essential Not Optional: Skills Needed to Succeed in Canada’s Environmental Industry” or take our Essential Skills courses.

Role Models

Todd Fell

Todd Fell works in an ecological consulting firm based in Guelph, Ontario. Todd's role as a restoration ecologist/ecological technician includes responsibilities that range from conducting inventories and analyses of vegetation and wildlife resources to restoration plans and working with computer-assisted design (CAD) programs. Many of these projects require a multidisciplinary approach, so Todd often works closely with engineers, hydrologists, botanists and other specialists. "Although I believe in conservation first, my real passion is ecological restoration, which means trying to repair the damage done to an area or a species.

The pace of development is so fast that I feel a responsibility to take an active role in restoring natural landscapes." Like many people, Todd followed a career path that wasn't exactly a straight line.

He graduated from the University of Guelph in landscape architecture, and through his involvement with environmental community groups like the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Todd discovered the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). Through the SER, Todd heard of a 1-year college program at Niagara College in Saint Catharines, Ontario, that specialized in restoration ecology.

Upon graduation, Todd was able to quickly get a contract with a firm that matched his career aspirations. "It's been 2 years since that first 6-month contract and I'm still here; sometimes all you need is a chance to get your foot in the door!"

Your Impact

In Canada, we have numerous ways of determining changes in the environment, especially when it comes to the weather. For example, flocks of birds migrating south are a sign that winter is coming. As an ecologist, you question, for example, how the behaviours of birds - such as migration - are stimulated by changes in the environment.

As an ecologist, you may also be invited to educate local communities about environmental issues and ecosystems in their area. Reports that you write will be used to influence environmental policy and offer expert advice to various organizations.

Climate change has increased natural disasters around the world. Despite the wreckage left behind, there are capabilities to rebuild. Natural disasters may be inevitable, but what about oil spills? When animals need to be removed from their habitats, how can this shift affect the behaviour of the environment that they leave behind?

As an ecologist, you will be able to answer these questions and more, while creating proactive solutions. Beyond working on natural disasters, ecologists observe changes to ecosystems and how organisms interact with one another after a disturbance has caused an imbalance.

Disturbances can come from various sources including increases in temperature, increased human activity as a result of urbanization, and many more. Ecologists’ understanding of these disturbances helps other ecologists and scientists make informed decisions on the best ways to mitigate the effects of these problems.

Ecologists’ work is used to answer questions about conservation and environmental protection, and management and environmental stewardship.

Occupational Classification

Individuals employed as ecologists be classified in one or more of the following occupational groupings:

NOC Code: 2121- Biologists and Related Scientists

NOC Code: 2224- Conservation and Fishery Officers

NOC Code: 2122- Forestry Professionals

What is a NOC Code?

The National Occupation Classification (NOC) provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians in the labour market. It gives statisticians, labour market analysts, career counsellors, employers and individual job seekers a consistent way to collect data, describe and understand the nature of work within different occupations.

The NOC is developed and updated in partnership with Statistics Canada to coincide with the 5- year census cycles. It is based on in-depth occupational research and consultations conducted across Canada, to reflect changes in the Canadian labour market.

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