What is a Zoo Endocrinologist?
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A zoo endocrinologist is a physician who specifically studies hormones and has trained in internal medicine. It is sometimes necessary to follow changes in an animal’s hormone levels in order to help conserve endangered species by reproducing them in zoos. If an animal is infertile or isn’t thriving, hormone assessment can give clues as to what may be wrong. On the other hand, some animals reproduce too quickly and contraception may be necessary. A zoo endocrinologist plays an important part in keeping the zoo animals healthy and happy.
How to Become a Zoo Endocrinologist
What does a Zoo Endocrinologist do?
Endocrinology is the study of hormones, and is a sub-specialty of internal medicine. A zoo endocrinologist primarily studies the reproductive hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, in animals. Despite working in an animal-related field, an endocrinologist will have very little, to no interaction with the animal. Their job is to extract the hormones from the animal and learn more about its reproductive status. This is done through the animal’s urine or droppings. The droppings are first processed through freeze-drying so that the moisture is taken out. The endocrinologist then uses a rubber mallet to pound the dried droppings until they turn into a powder, and will use the powder to extract the hormones.
Once the endocrinologist has extracted the hormones, he or she can:
- Establish pregnancy due dates for expecting animals (this way the facility and staff can prepare for the birth and housing of an infant animal).
- Document an animal’s seasonal reproductive cycle so they know the best breeding times
- Monitor hormones to see if a contraceptive is working for animals that reproduce too readily
- Conduct research to see if and why an animal might be infertile; this might lead to treatment to increase chances of reproduction, which is usually done for endangered animals. This information also helps the zoo know if they should focus their breeding efforts on other animals.
- Some research labs also look at behavioural endocrinology. This is the study of how environmental factors in a zoo can affect stress hormone levels in the animals. This is a relatively new branch of research that looks at the affect of animals in captivity.
A zoo endocrinologist will need to maintain accurate records of all their studies, follow strict procedures for quality control, and coordinate with others in the research department which requires excellent written and oral communication. They also oversee all work done in the lab by technicians.
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How to Become a Zoo Endocrinologist
Becoming an endocrinologist requires approximately 14 years of education and training. This consists of:
- getting a bachelor’s degree in biology or chemistry (four years)
- passing an MCAT examination
- completing a medical degree (M.D., or D.O.) from an accredited medical school (four years)
- completing three years of residency training in internal medicine (three years)
- completing a required fellowship in endocrinology (two to three years)
Some zoos will offer placement within their research programs to undergraduate students who want to specialize in endocrinology. Getting experience with animals as early as possible is very important.
What is the workplace of a Zoo Endocrinologist like?
A zoo endocrinologist will typically work in a lab or a medical office setting, and will oversee all activities that occur within the lab, maintain integrity of the studies, and communicate with research assistants and zoo staff.