CAREERS IN HERPETOLOGY
Herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles. There are many exciting and rewarding career choices for people interested in herpetology. All herpetologists are first biologists, with a good knowledge of general biology, who have a specialized knowledge of amphibians and reptiles.
Herpetologists include people with advanced academic degrees, non-scientists who work with amphibians and reptiles for a living, and people who pursue herpetology as an avocation. All herpetologist share two traits: (a) a strong interest in one or more kinds of amphibians and reptiles, and (b) the persistence and determination necessary to be successful at doing what they want to do. Unfortunately, there are not many jobs directly related to herpetology, and even a well-trained individual may find it necessary to accept a position removed from his or her prime area of interest. The following sections outline some of the major career directions and the training necessary to pursue them.
WHAT DO HERPETOLOGISTS DO?
Most herpetologists do research on amphibians and reptiles. The research may be ecological (how animals live), systematic (how animals are related), morphological (animal structure), behavioral (what animals do), physiological (how the body functions), or biochemical. The results of their research are published in scientific journals and books.
Herpetologists may work in zoos or for wildlife agencies, do environmental assessments, teach, or care for museum collections. Some herpetologists work as writers, photographers, or animal breeders. The major categories of jobs for herpetologists are described below.
Colleges and Universities
The majority of herpetologists work as professors or researchers in colleges and universities. With few exceptions, a person must have a Ph.D. in biology to teach in these places. Smaller colleges may hire teachers with a master's degree. The herpetologist is expected to teach a variety of biology courses, such as introductory biology, systematics, anatomy, physiology, or ecology, as well as herpetology. College or university professors have a salary range of $30,000 to $80,000, depending on experience.
A few positions such as research assistant or laboratory assistant are available in universities to individuals without a Ph.D. degree. These positions may offer the opportunity to pursue herpetological studies as a sideline in an academic setting, with access to good libraries and research equipment. Full-time research or laboratory assistants have a salary range of $17,000 to $35,000.
Museums offer other jobs for herpetologists. Curators or scientists are usually able to devote most of their time to doing research on amphibians and reptiles. These positions require a Ph.D. degree in biology. In museums that are associated with universities, the jobs of professor and curator are combined, so that one individual both teaches and does museum research. Museum curators and scientists have a salary range of $30,000 to $80,000, depending on experience.
Collection managers take care of preserved amphibians and reptiles. They catalog specimens, keep records, and make specimens available for research. Collection manager positions require a master's degree in biology or museum studies, and have a salary range of $18,000 to $45,000.
Other museum jobs are available as museum assistants. Often, these are part-time positions for students. As full-time positions, museum assistants are usually required to have a bachelor's degree. Full-time museum assistant positions have a salary range of $12,000 to $18,000.
There are several herpetological jobs available in zoological parks. Zoo curators and supervisors are manager positions that usually require a master's degree in biology. Curators and supervisors have a salary range of $30,000 to $50,000.
Most zoo keeper jobs require a bachelor's degree (and sometimes a graduate degree) in biology. Zoo keepers are primary care givers for the animals in their charge. They feed, clean, and maintain the animals in captivity. Zoo keeper positions have a salary range of $15,000 to $25,000.
Some zoos have positions available as educators (usually requiring a master's degree) or researcher at the Ph.D. level.
There are a few positions in the state and federal government for herpetologists in wildlife management, usually in non-game programs. Some of these are field positions, others involve work researching and writing regulations. There are also a few jobs for herpetologists with private conservation organizations. All of these jobs require at least a bachelor's degree, usually in wildlife management, and often a master's degree or Ph.D. in biology.
Some individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit go into business for themselves breeding and selling amphibians and reptiles, or herpetological related merchandise and publications. There is a very limited number of people who make money selling frog legs (for food) or extracting snake venom for medical and research use.
It is possible to make a living writing books and magazine articles about herpetology, photographing of amphibians and reptiles, or making nature films.
Many people do not have jobs directly related to herpetology but are still able to keep herpetology as part of their career focus. Careers which can have a herpetological emphasis include high school science teachers, veterinarians, environmental technicians, and biomedical researchers. These career choices all require specialized post-graduate training.
Most careers in herpetology require at least a bachelor's degree in biology. The competition for jobs in herpetology is very intense, so post-graduate studies can be critical to your career. To be successful in competing for a job, individuals need to establish both informal and formal educational goals.
Informal education in herpetology begins as soon as an individual develops an interest in reptiles and amphibians. Read all of the books and magazine articles you can about these animals. Becoming an active member of a regional herpetological society is a good way to meet others with common interests. Going out to search for amphibians and reptiles is an excellent way to sharpen observation and note taking skills. Record your field observations of amphibians and reptiles carefully in permanent field books. Learn how to take good photographs of animals and their habitats.
A college education with an emphasis in the sciences is recommended. There is no college or university that offers a major in herpetology at the undergraduate or even the graduate level. Instead, persons interested in herpetology select a major in the biological sciences. The knowledge learned about all aspects of the biology of animals is then applied to an individual study of herpetology. It is important not to neglect other studies as well-herpetologists need courses in statistics, chemistry, computer science, writing, and foreign languages. Acceptance into graduate school is especially competitive. Good grades and a well-balanced undergraduate education are necessary for acceptance.
It does not matter whether the college selected for study is small or large. What is important is that the school have a good academic record, be strong in the sciences, and particularly strong in organismal biology.
Graduate programs at many universities allow you to do advanced studies on some aspects of herpetology, and sometimes a comparatively obscure university may have an outstanding herpetologist on its faculty. One good way to select a university for graduate study is to read the current issues of the major herpetological journals (Copeia, Herpetologica, and Journal of Herpetology). When you find articles on the kind of research that interests you, check and see where the researchers are based, and apply to those institutions. A few universities have had a long tradition of producing herpetologists. These include Harvard University, University of Florida, Cornell University, University of Michigan, University of Kansas, and University of California at Berkeley. Other centers for herpetological study include Duke University, University of Chicago, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Texas at Arlington.
Duellman, William E. and Linda Trueb. 1985. Biology of the Amphibians. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York
Halliday, Tim and Kraig Adler. 1986. Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Facts on File, New York
Porter, Kenneth. 1972. Herpetology. W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia
Stebbins, Robert C. and Nathan W. Cohen. 1995. A Natural History of Amphibians. Princeton University Press, Princeton
Zug, G.R. 1993. Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles. Academic Press, NY
PROFESSIONAL HERPETOLOGICAL SOCIETIES AND PUBLICATIONS
American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH)
Publications: Copeia (scientific journal, quarterly)
Membership: ASIH Business Office, P.O. Box 1897, Lawrence, KS 66044-8897
Herpetologists' League (HL)
Publications: Herpetologica (scientific journal, quarterly)
Membership: Dr. Rebecca A. Pyles, Herpetologists' League Treasurer, Department of Biological Sciences, Box 70726, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN 37614-0726
Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR)
Publications: Journal of Herpetology (scientific journal, quarterly); Herpetological Review (newsletter, quarterly); Herpetological Circulars; Contributions to Herpetology
Membership: Karen Toepfer, SSAR Treasurer, 303 W. 39th Street, Hayes, KS 67601