I consider myself an amateur herpetologist. I own reptiles, have worked with them for many years, and have tailored my education and current job positions around reptiles and amphibians.
I’ve taken additional courses in herpetology after completing my bachelor’s degree and strive to educate people about the often misunderstood animals. Hopefully, I can help people understand why this is such a cool field by explaining what herpetologists do.
Herpetologists study reptile and amphibian species by observing their behavior, development, ecology, genetics, evolution, life histories, and conservation challenges. Herpetologists also study the ecosystems where reptiles and amphibians reside and what makes them suitable for these species and their niches.
Herpetologists can do a multitude of different jobs and careers that have to do with reptiles and amphibians. From research to animal care to government work, there are a lot of possibilities that can fit an individual’s interests.
Let’s have a closer look at some of the things herpetologists can do throughout their careers.
Herpetologists May Carry out Research
Many herpetologists work in a research capacity.
This means studying reptiles and amphibians in an attempt to make new discoveries about them. This could mean working with live animals to learn about how they move, or how they eat, or how they reproduce, or nearly anything else.
Others may study preserved specimens of deceased animals. This is where many identifications of new species come from.
Additionally, some researchers may spend time out in the wild observing animals in their natural habitats.
Herpetologists Study Reptile and Amphibian Genetics
Studying genetics and life histories split these species into reptiles and amphibians and further through taxonomy classifications.
The study of certain groups of animals splits species into taxon-based categories. Reptiles and amphibians are grouped together in a branch of zoology called herpetology.
What order, family, and genus does a species fit into? What makes a snake a snake, a lizard a lizard? This also compares species to see how closely they relate to each other evolutionarily.
Studying behavior of species can group them together as well.
Do they give birth to live animals, or lay eggs that hatch? We can know if species prefer to live underground, in the water, or in trees, or somewhere else.
Herpetologists Play in Important Role in Conservation
Conservationists may attempt to breed endangered species in captivity and then release them into the wild to re-establish populations.
They may also work to save the natural habitat of the target species, or work to get laws passed to protect threatened animals and their habitats.
Conservation is a big part of herpetology as a lot of species are being threatened by habitat destruction caused by humans.
Herpetologists can study how species ranges and distributions change over time and what contaminants and environmental factors cause them harm. They look at population numbers to determine if a species is endangered.
Species go through cycles of extinction naturally, but some recent declines are caused by humans. Herpetologists figure out which species are declining and what is causing it.
Are humans killing these species for sport? Did invasive species move into their natural habitats? Most importantly, what can we do to keep these species around?
Some Herpetologists Preserve Species
Collection managers typically work in museums with preserved species of reptiles and amphibians. These species are no longer alive and can be from all life and development stages for different species.
Researchers who work with collections categorize and document specimens and may take samples for testing and comparison. Collection specimens are wonderful tools for presentations and evolutionary research.
Museums might display some of these specimens for visitors to see. In that case, a herpetologist would be best suited to arrange an exhibit to educate the public. Which specimens are well preserved and represent their species best?
Some Herpetologists Care For Animals in Zoos
Zookeeping and animal care is another career path that allows someone to work with live animals. Therefore, herpetologists may also work in husbandry, meaning they are responsible for caring for live reptiles and amphibians.
This could be in the collection of a zoo, an aquarium, or a natural history museum. These herpetologists may also interact with the public, engaging in education and outreach to increase public awareness of reptiles and amphibians.
I’m a zookeeper, and I’ve been told the reptile house is “my domain” because it’s my favorite section to work in! In the reptile house we have a lot of snake species, turtles, lizards, and one alligator.
Zookeepers provide care for the animals, meaning we clean and feed them, give them environmental enrichment, and keep their habitat appropriate for them.
This means we need to know the species requirements; do they burrow or climb? What are their temperature ranges? Are they venomous?
Herpetologists May Provide Medical Care
Another portion of animal care is veterinary medicine. Most small animal vets don’t see reptiles or amphibians, so it’s good to find an exotic vet.
Luckily, I also work at an exotic vet. We actually treat the reptiles from the zoo I work at!
It’s easy to become an exotic vet technician or assistant with the knowledge of the species that you’re treating.
Most animal medicine is centered around cats and dogs, so finding the path to take to treat exotic species can be tricky. Most exotic vets treat reptiles and amphibians in addition to avian species and pocket pets.
Herpetologists May Work for the Government
Government agencies, like state or local wildlife agencies, help with conservation of wild species. They deal with most species, but it’s possible to find specific reptile or amphibian species that are at risk.
Agencies may conduct field research and surveys to obtain wild population numbers, species range, and habitat status to assess how they can help vulnerable species.
Field studies performed by government agencies let us know how a reptile or amphibian population is changing over time.
Their range could be shrinking or shifting or overlapping with species it hasn’t overlapped with before. What competition is there for these species, and what role do they play in the environment?
Herpetologists Often Teach the Next Generation
Herpetologists can work at universities or colleges teaching students courses and conducting their own research for the school.
Herpetology was my favorite class when I was getting my bachelor’s, and I even joined the school’s herpetology club!
Afterwards, I got a certificate in herpetology so I could learn more about reptiles and amphibians from experts in the field who had personal experience.
I wouldn’t be able to be an effective zookeeper or veterinary assistant without those experts in the field mentoring me.
Because of their dedication and hardwork, I can expand my knowledge and teach visitors to the zoo why frogs aren’t covered in slime and what substrate people should use for their pets.
This article was written by Melissa M., Master Herpetologist certified by the Amphibian Foundation. It was edited and published by Daniella, Master Herpetologist in the author profile below.
GIBBONS, J. (n.d.). WHAT IS A HERPETOLOGIST AND HOW CAN I BECOME ONE? The Journal of North American Herpetology. Retrieved from http://www.cnah.org/pdf/88057.pdf