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Bioscience Careers

Animal Behaviorist

  • Photo: New England Aquarium

Animal behaviorism is the scientific study of animal behavior and involves investigating everything animals do. Animals studied include single-celled organisms, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Animal behaviorists investigate the relationship of animals to their physical environment as well as to other organisms. Studied topics include how animals find and defend resources, avoid predators, choose mates and reproduce and care for their young.

People who study animal behavior are concerned with understanding the causes, functions, development and evolution of animal behavior. Animal behaviorists will study the behavior functions, including the behavior’s immediate effects on animals and its adaptive value in helping the animal to survive or reproduce successfully in a particular environment. Animal behaviorists also will study the development of behavior to see the ways in which behavior changes during the lifetime of an animal and how those changes are affected both by genes and by experience.

Career Opportunities

Government and Private Research Institutions

A growing number of animal behaviorists work in government laboratories or in private business and industry, and many of these jobs involve health-related research. For example, drug companies or government laboratories might hire animal behaviorists to conduct research on the behavioral effects of new drugs on animals, to examine the links between animal behavior and disease or to evaluate the well-being of animals under their care. State and federal government agencies responsible for natural resources management sometimes hire animal behaviorists to work in their wildlife programs. Increasingly, private environmental consulting firms are employing behaviorists to examine the effects of habitat alteration on foraging patterns, spatial dispersion and reproductive processes in animals.

For many of these jobs, a Ph.D. is desirable and training is essential. For health-related jobs, training in relevant fields such as physiology, biochemistry or pharmacology particularly is helpful.

College Teaching and Research

Most animal behaviorists teach and/or conduct independent research at colleges and universities. Many behaviorists have academic appointments in biology, zoology or psychology departments. Other behaviorists are employed in departments of anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, animal science, wildlife biology, entomology and ecology as well as in medical and veterinary colleges.

Careers in college teaching and research usually require a Ph.D.; a few junior colleges require only a master’s degree. Most animal behavior jobs exist within larger academic departments, and animal behaviorists often teach in related disciplines such as physiology, ecology and evolution. Students who obtain a Ph.D. in programs offering training in the behavioral or biological sciences are more competitive in the job market — although animal behavior is a growing discipline, competition remains keen for jobs in teaching and research.

Zoos and Aquariums, Conservation Groups, Museums

Zoos, aquariums and museums occasionally hire animal behaviorists as curators or researchers. Curators are responsible for acquiring, maintaining and displaying collections of particular animals, whereas researchers are responsible for the scientific study of those animals.

In zoos and aquariums, behavioral research usually is aimed at improving the health and reproduction of animals. In this capacity, behaviorists often collaborate closely with field biologist specialists in endocrinology, nutrition, genetics and veterinary medicine. Behavioral research conducted in museums can cover a wide range of topics but usually encompasses aspects of the ecology and natural history.

Some conservation groups also hire animal behaviorists, especially those that fund long-term field research or are involved with reintroduction programs (the releasing of captive animals into an area that once was part of that species’ historical range but from which it has been removed or extinct), the design of nature preserves or sustainable wildlife use. As these groups grow in number and gain support, the availability of jobs for animal behaviorists in the area should increase.

Curators, researchers and conservation workers usually hold a Ph.D. or DVM and also have broad training in at least one other area of biology, such as animal husbandry (the agricultural practice of breeding and raising livestock), ecology, entomology, ornithology, mammalogy or primatology.

Some zoos, aquariums and museums also hire researchers who specialize in animal behavior education. Educators work to communicate knowledge about animal behavior to the general public through tours, lectures and educational displays. Educators may hold a B.S., M.S. or Ph.D. in the biological or behavioral sciences. Usually some specialized training or experience in secondary or adult education also is preferred.

Other Research Opportunities

Paid research assistants often are hired by universities, zoos, museums, government and private facilities to help conduct ongoing animal behavior research. These behaviorists work under the direction of faculty and staff researchers and help design, perform and analyze the results of animal behavior studies. Research assistants can work in laboratories or in the field, depending upon the nature of the research project. These jobs can be full-time or part-time, and full-time research assistants usually hold either a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Education/Training

Most scientists involved directly in animal behavior work in one of four broad fields: ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior considered as a branch of zoology), comparative psychology, behavioral ecology or anthropology. These disciplines overlap greatly in their goals, interests and methods. Historically, psychologists and ethologists primarily have been concerned with the regulation and functions of animal behavior, whereas behavioral ecologists have focused on how animal behavioral patterns relate to social and environmental conditions. Ethologists and behavioral ecologists typically are trained in departments of biology, zoology, ecology and evolution, entomology, wildlife or other animal sciences. Most comparative psychologists are trained in psychology departments.

Some jobs in animal behavior require only a B.A. or B.S. degree. However, most careers in animal behavior require advanced degrees, such as an M.A. or M.S., or, more likely, a Ph.D. or DVM.

Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, animal behaviorists earned an average salary of $61,640 as of May 2008. The lowest paid 10 percent of animal behaviorists averaged salaries of $33,060 or less, while the highest paid 10 percent averaged nearly $100,000 a year in compensation.