Invertebrate Zoology

Jan Pechenik, Department of Biology
Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts

Daphne Fautin, Division of Biological Sciences
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

What themes unify invertebrate zoology?

Invertebrate biologists study many aspects of the biology of animals without backbones, a large field of study as it includes at least 95 percent of all animal species.

How diverse is the field of invertebrate zoology?

The topics investigated by invertebrate biologists range from the molecular to the ecological level of study. Thus, studies on invertebrates might include field work, laboratory work or a mixture of both. Invertebrates may be found and studied in all conceivable habitats - freshwater, marine, high and low latitudes, hot rift vents, deserts, mountaintops and the Antarctic.

Why is your field exciting?

Invertebrate zoology is exciting and rewarding and is important in understanding the world. Because there are so many species and habitats, there is no end to the number and kinds of questions that can be asked or the new kinds of information that can be obtained.

There are some important lifestyle aspects that make this an exciting career. Among these are opportunities to travel, meet interesting and challenging people, and to conduct research at appealing laboratories. Many invertebrate zoologists travel to the tropics - some have even gone to the deep sea in submersibles. Scientists, in general, are part of an international professional community. At professional meetings, scientists are directly in touch with a worldwide network of friends and ideas. This comparison and exchange of ideas with colleagues is invigorating.

How does the study of invertebrate zoology help society? Why should the public care?

Studying, cataloguing and maintaining biodiversity is of prime importance, because it allows biologists to better understand conservation issues and the consequences that follow from the loss of species. Invertebrate biologists contribute to the understanding of the health of the environment as well as to the health of our own species.

The importance of invertebrates is, in general, not appreciated, but the theme of ecological importance of "hidden species" runs throughout biology. Vertebrates depend on invertebrates in an obvious way for food and in less obvious ways as pollinators of food plants. Biological invasions of invertebrates can have great economic impact on health care and agriculture. For example, zebra mussels from Europe were accidentally introduced in to the Great Lakes where they can form clusters of thousands of individuals, smothering native organisms and changing lake ecology. Because they clog water intake pipes, zebra mussels have been costly to industry and municipal water facilities.

What is a typical day like?

Biologists working in educational settings have great control over their time and duties. Since every day is different, academic careers are good for people who enjoy this kind of personal control and variety. Professional life is a real mosaic of activities - talking with students, debating issues with colleagues, laboratory work and field work. Some research in invertebrate zoology also involves SCUBA diving, but not as much as popularly conceived.

What other jobs are there in invertebrate zoology besides those in academia or research labs?

Non-traditional careers for invertebrate zoologists include aquaculture; genetic engineering or biotechnology; environmental law; science journalism; and high school teaching. Other careers include working in a museum, aquarium or zoo, directing and staffing educational displays and collections.

Additionally, some invertebrate zoologists hold public outreach positions such as interpretive naturalists for environmental education centers and national parks.