What is Zoology?

Posted: May 2, 2011 in Zoology
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If I had a dollar for every time someone, upon asking me about my chosen field, replied with, “Oh, so you want to work in a Zoo then?” I’d… well, I’d probably be able to shout you a trip to the zoo.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey :: photo by suneko on Flickr

And as ridiculous a question as it seems to me now, I remember a time when it was not so clear. When I had all the passion for conservation and none of the information on how to pursue that. When someone once told me I should do Ecology, and I had no idea what that meant. Indeed, to my co-workers at my day job, Ecology is a Manchester brand and little else.

“Zoo-” is a Greek root meaning “animal” or “life”. Any word you see beginning with “zoo” will pertain to something involving animals – not necessarily a Zoo. The suffix -logy comes from the Greek word “logos”, meaning the science or study of.

In fact, if you’re going to take up a life sciences degree in any shape or form, you might want to learn the Greek and Latin roots of the terms you learn in class. Understanding the meaning of prefixes and suffixes will help you out enormously in understanding all those crazy long words that will creep up on you as you go along. It might also save you in an exam one day! (And by ‘might’ I mean “definitely will frequently” – I can attest to that!)

Back on topic, Zoology is thus a study of life and animals. This encompasses everything we see in nature. Every time you watch a documentary on animals, you are hearing facts that were discovered by Zoologists! It is a complex field, with no easy answers to research questions. A lecturer once joked to the class the he had abandoned his former field of science because it was too easy – he wanted to study something without an easy answer. While it was a jovial remark, it reflected a deeper truth: in Zoology there isn’t ever one single answer. There is no a = b. It is a profoundly complex web of intermingled relationships that influence one another on a variety of levels. It’s a deep, intellectual challenge – and that’s just half the fun of it!

Whatever you interests in animals, a Zoology degree is a great way to start. Even if you miss the marks to get into Vet Science, Zoology can act as a pathway there. There are a multitude of disciplines, sub-disciplines and pathways available here, so I’m going to talk about a few of the different disciplines I dabbled in in my undergraduate degree.

Ecology: What once was a foreign concept to me quickly became central to everything I did. Ecology is simply the study of living organisms and their surroundings. It stems from the idea that nothing can be viewed alone: life is interconnected and to understand an organism we need to understand those connections. You will learn how to decipher these relationships and how to understand the ways they impact one another.

Conservation and Australian Wildlife: If conservation is what takes your interest, you’re in the right place. As a high school student, I knew I wanted to work in conservation but had no idea how to get there. Did I just have to volunteer for an NGO, or could I do it academically? It took me some time to realise that I could do it through a Zoology degree. Most everything you learn is underpinned by Ecology. We learnt conservation with a focus on Australian wildlife, but the implications are global. We learnt everything from how to recognise the ways in which change may impact a community, to the legal processes behind conservation at both a State and Federal level.

Animal Behaviour: This one is of particular interest to me, especially now as my Masters project dabbles in this a lot. This is where you find out how to understand why animals act the way they do. Why do some animals live alone whilst others stay in groups? Why do some spiders ‘decorate’ their webs? How does a possum choose where to sleep during the day? It is commonly mistaken for being an easy science – until you try it! Animals will not talk to you, wildlife will not cooperate: it all rests on experimental design. You have to be able to design an experiment that takes into account everything that can influence the animal so you can manipulate just one of these things and discover how the animals reacts. You will not only learn now to do this, but you will get to do this in practise! You will design real-life experiments in an attempt to find out something that hasn’t been tried before, or to test the validity of something that has. This is useful for conservation purposes, but many study animal behaviour just because they find it interesting!

Reproduction and Development: It isn’t all field work, so if a laboratory is what takes your fancy then there’s room for that, too. The subjects cover everything, from all the hormonal processes in the body that lead the the production of reproductive cells, to the process of fertilisation itself. You will soon understand every cell division of the egg, and what part of the body is formed during which process of development. You will then learn how this whole process can be manipulated for a variety of reasons: to increase yield in a dairy farm, or to control an over-populated species, or even to captive breed an endangered species.

Physiology: Again, if you prefer the clinical stuff, physiology is something you may be interested in. It looks at the system of a living organism. Understanding on a cellular level the way the body works is important in understanding more about the animal itself. This can also have important implications for management of a species.

Genetics: While not strictly being a Zoology topic, it is central to a lot of what we do. After all, if it wasn’t for genetics, we wouldn’t actually know that birds aren’t truly monogamous! While they appear to pair for life, they will sneak other matings behind their partners’ back. Without paternity tests, we would still believe that they were completely faithful. Genetics is useful for being able to indentify animals, as well as being able to understand the level of diversity in a population. The tools it offers us seem to increase by the day, as do the ways to utilise them.

These are just a very brief few. If you want to know more about studying Zoology, you can ask us in the comment section or email us any time. Many Universities that offer a Zoology degree will have a lot of information on their websites, so there’s another good place to start!

  1. Gus says:

    Nice post! Too true, I often get the exact same question when I tell people I’m doing a Masters in Zoology. Hopefully your blog may help people understand how big a field it actually is!

  2. Shane says:

    guilty! i thought a zoologist worked in a zoo. i also had no idea what ecology was. informative post. zoology is so much more mutil-faceted than i thought.

  3. Im planning on taking zoology or marine biology, and this has really enlightened me so thanks.

  4. yihui says:

    Hi! Great website! So glad i found it. I am 18 this year, just graduated high school, hoping to study zoology in uni. I have a few questions over here I would like to ask if you don’t mind. Is there a email I can email you instead?

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