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Bioscience Careers

Mammalogist

  • Photo: Oregon Coast Aquarium

Mammalogy is the branch of biology that deals with the study of mammals. It encompasses such diverse areas as the structure, function, evolutionary history, ethology, taxonomy, management and economics of mammals. Approximately 4,200 species of living mammals and numerous extinct species comprise the material for study. Included are egg-laying echidnas, the platypus, pouched marsupials, tiny shrews, bats, mice, whales, apes and elephants, to name only a few.

The study of mammals can be as diverse as the organisms themselves. A mammalogist might study a wide variety of topics on a particular species or group of mammals or might take a comparative approach and investigate one aspect with regard to a wide variety of mammals. The major subdivisions of the science of mammalogy include the following:

Natural History

The study of a species’ way of life, including descriptions of the habitats in which it lives, the food it eats, the predators that eat it, the stages of its maturation and reproduction and its social structure.

Taxonomy and Systematics

The study of the classification of mammals into distinct orders, families, genera, species and subspecies, thereby defining the geographic distribution of each taxon (a taxonomic category or group, such as a phylum, order, family, genus or species). In addition, the evolutionary relationships among extinct (paleontology) and/or living taxa are analyzed.

Anatomy and Physiology

The study of mammalian body structures and tissues and how each functions.

Ethology

The study of the behavior of an animal and how those behaviors influence its survival and reproduction.

Ecology

The study of interactions between mammals and their environments (nonliving and living). This discipline includes the study of special adaptations to environmental factors (physiological ecology) and the study of interactions within and among species (population and community ecology).

Management and Control

The interactions between humans and other mammals in which humans manipulate either the environment or populations of mammals to favor the use and/or survival of certain species and to regulate or even reduce the populations of species whose activities conflict with human interests.

Of course, individual studies in mammalogy are not necessarily restricted to one of the above categories; many studies combine aspects from two or more areas. In game management, for example, the ecology and natural history of the species must be understood, and in taxonomy anatomical features are used to discern systematic relationships. In addition, mammalogists often collaborate with scientists in other fields, such as ornithologists in studies of predator-prey relationships between birds-of-prey and rodents and botanists in studies of plant-herbivore interaction. Obviously, becoming a mammalogist is not the only way to study mammals. In fact, many scientists who study mammals would not consider themselves mammalogists per se, but rather specialists in such fields as physiology or ethology who happen to use mammals as the subjects in their research. A number of employment opportunities exist for trained mammalogists and individuals interested in working with mammals. Each job differs in its duties/responsibilities, methodologies, perspectives, compensation and level of training required. Some of the principal career opportunities for mammalogists are described below.

Career Opportunities

Universities

Although few universities have departments of mammalogy, most large universities employ professors who work with mammals, either in the biology/zoology departments or in departments such as ecology, evolution, behavior, physiology, anatomy, systematics and wildlife management. University mammalogists typically are involved heavily in research activities. The research program at large universities is expected to be productive and of high quality, because much of its funding must come from granting agencies outside the university. Therefore, university mammalogists often direct a staff of lab technicians, undergraduates and graduate students in their laboratory.

Besides actually conducting research, the duties of the university professor include maintaining quality control, managing personnel, writing proposals for submission to granting agencies and writing the results of the laboratory’s research, either as progress reports or as manuscripts for publication. In addition, as a member of an academic department, most university mammalogists are expected to participate in the teaching and advising of undergraduate and graduate students. Often a course in mammalogy is taught as well as other courses within the professor’s area of specialization. Participation in the general courses of the department such as general zoology/biology and human anatomy/physiology might be required as well. In virtually all cases, faculty positions at large universities require a Ph.D., and many institutions prefer candidates to have postdoctoral experience as well. Formal training in education is not a prerequisite, but some teaching experience, at least as a graduate teaching assistant in a laboratory course, usually is required. The number of positions for mammalogists at major universities is limited, and competition for these is keen. Nonetheless, each year well-trained, productive candidates, often new Ph.D.s, succeed in obtaining such employment.

Colleges

The largest number of positions for biologists studying mammals historically has been as vertebrate biologists, teaching undergraduates and conducting limited research in colleges and small universities. Doctoral programs usually are not available at these institutions, but master’s degree programs frequently are. College professors should be trained broadly in undergraduate and graduate vertebrate courses, with support courses in morphology, physiology, ecology, ethology, genetics and evolution. A Ph.D. usually is required. Also, opportunities should be sought during graduate training to teach a variety of introductory and advanced laboratory courses in biology. Individuals interested in a college position must be able to direct undergraduates in the classroom and on research projects and should find such work rewarding and stimulating. In contrast to the situation at a large university, mammalogists at colleges and small universities typically devote more of their time to teaching. The number of courses taught per year is greater, and the importance of the quality of teaching in the assessment of overall performance usually is greater. Although research programs may be smaller and time commitments to research less at colleges and smaller universities, the quality of research at these institutions still is expected to be high.

Federal Government Agencies

Many agencies within the federal government employ mammalogists, including the Public Health Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency. As expected, the type of work within these agencies varies greatly. Within the federal government, individuals who work with mammals are employed as ecologists; general biologists; geneticists (developing breeding methods and selection procedures for livestock and game mammals); husbanders (studying breeding and feeding of livestock); physiologists; range scientists (managing the use and preservation of rangeland for both domestic and game mammals); wildlife biologists (determining conservation and management practices for wild mammals); wildlife refuge managers (operating game reserves and refuges) and zoologists. In general, the educational requirements for these positions include a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent, with at least 30 semester hours in biological sciences. These jobs usually do not include teaching duties, and the selection of a specific research project is done by administrators, often on the basis of monetary impact or political considerations.

State Fish and Game Agencies

Educational requirements for a career with state fish and game agencies are met best by the M.S. degree. Someone with a bachelor’s degree and some field experience also is employable at the entry level. Students should structure their coursework toward a degree in biology or game and resource management. Undergraduate coursework should include general and upper-level biology courses. A strong background in communication skills such as writing and public speaking is recommended. Areas of specialization that would increase the chances of employment include some expertise in data analysis/statistics and computer programming. A person can increase the probability of obtaining a job in this field by participating in seasonal work programs. Most state departments have these programs available to students, usually during the summer months. Participation in these programs strongly is advised for two reasons: They allow the student to obtain a first-hand knowledge of the field and the type of work involved and they allow the department to assess the individual for future employment. These programs are particularly good for establishing contacts within the field. Fieldwork and direct interaction with wild mammals are the big draws for this type of employment, although some positions deal more with the public than with wild mammals. One major drawback is that employees often are not their own bosses. As with federal positions, long-term goals may be dictated by state and local political considerations and budgetary constraints.

Museums

A person receiving training in mammalogy might work in either a public or university museum. There are several differences between these, including the size of the collection (large public museums often have more specimens than university museums) and the responsibilities of curators. Along with responsibilities for curation of the collection and research, a university position usually includes teaching duties, such as a class in mammalogy or vertebrate biology. In both situations, appointments are based on an individual’s ability to meet the highest level of scholarly achievement and to conduct and publish original research. A person generally must have a Ph.D. or the equivalent in order to qualify for such a position. However, some museums employ mammalogists without doctoral degrees as curatorial assistants. The areas of specialization generally are systematics, ecology and biogeography. Curatorial duties include acquisition, preparation, identification, maintenance and cataloging of specimens so materials are readily available to researchers. Appointments are limited because there are few large, prestigious museums and because most museum curatorial positions are with smaller museums.

Zoos

There are several hundred zoo positions nationally that are filled by individuals trained in mammalogy. However, for college-educated biologists, the number of positions that open annually is very small. The majority of zoo (and aquarium) positions such as zookeepers require only a high school education, as practical, on-the-job training is provided. For higher-level positions such as curators and directors, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in biology or zoology usually is required, along with some management experience. Generally, some practical experience also is required for curatorial positions. Today, an increasing number of zoos are using their captive animals as research subjects and are employing mammalogists with bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees.

Wildlife/Conservation Organizations

Although more job opportunities for mammalogists are found in education and government, a limited number of positions are available with private wildlife or conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. These organizations obtain and maintain preserves and sanctuaries, interact with federal agencies, sponsor programs and conduct research on endangered species and threatened habitats. The types of positions available include basic research scientists, lobbyists for wildlife legislation, administrators of sanctuaries and preserves and directors of educational activities. Beyond these generalizations, job descriptions and expectations vary widely. A Ph.D. is required for research mammalogists involved in gathering data for use in deciding strategies for management and preservation of rare or endangered species. While there are many other positions for which an undergraduate degree in biology is the minimum requirement, postgraduate work enhances the chances for success in a difficult job market. In addition to basic coursework in biology (which could emphasize mammalogy), students interested in careers with these organizations would be wise to seek experience in natural resource management, use of computers, public speaking and semitechnical writing. Short-term internships also are available to college students in some of the larger environmental organizations. These positions offer an educational experience as well as insight into the pros and cons of a career with this type of organization. Students may be assigned to work on preserves or sanctuaries or to assist regular staff members in policy work. An internship with these organizations substantially may improve the likelihood of future employment. Directories to wildlife and conservation organizations often are available in public libraries and should be consulted to gain an idea of the variety of available employment opportunities.

Private Research Institutions/Private Industry

In the private sector, many companies employ scientists with training in mammalogy. These include the energy and lumber industries as well as scientific supply/products companies. In addition, independent research institutes and consulting firms contract with smaller companies, government agencies and other entities to perform a similar function. In either case, the research is applied rather than basic. The two primary types of mammal studies undertaken in the private sector are toxicology and field ecology. Toxicology studies the effects of chemicals or pollutants on living systems. These studies are performed primarily in the laboratory and require an expertise in anatomy and physiology and a background in histology, chemistry and statistics. Field ecology is field studies of mammalian ecology. These studies usually are performed in the field, utilizing trapping and telemetry techniques. Employment in research institutes and private industry depends somewhat on the economy and how much of the budget is available for research and development. Summer training for undergraduates is available at some research institutes and is recommended to gain experience and to make employment contacts.

Salary

Universities and Colleges

Salaries for university professors range from $18,000 to $60,000 per year, depending on experience. The salary range for a professor at a college or small university often is lower than at large universities.

Federal Government Agencies

Appointments start at the GS-9 level, or about $20,000 per year, with a bachelor’s degree. Scientists with a Ph.D. may start at GS-12, or about $30,000 per year.

Museums

Salaries vary widely depending on the institution. Mammalogists employed at university museums often start at a salary of $16,000 to $20,000 per year, which increases upon promotion to full professor or curator. Individuals with such positions typically hold a joint appointment in an academic department such as biology or zoology. Not all universities offer tenure-track positions for curators. At large public and private museums, starting salaries tend to be slightly higher, $23,000 per year, and may increase to approximately $60,000 per year.

Zoos

For higher-level positions such as curators and directors, the typical salary is between $10,000 and $50,000 annually.

Private Research Institutions/Private Industry

Generally, technicians are hired with a bachelor’s degree, starting at about $12,000 per year. Scientists with advanced degrees earn from $20,000 to over $40,000 annually.