How do we science? / Science / Technology / Uncategorized

Wildlife biology: The computing skills that you need to know

This post is a sort of follow-up to an earlier post, “Getting Started with Bioinformatics”.  Two years ago, if I were to read that post, I would’ve thought that while bioinformatics if obviously powerful, it is not that relevant to me as someone more inclined in “classic field-based wildlife biology”. In such a profession, I saw the collection of data in the field as the principal part of my work, with data analysis taking a smaller  role (maybe some plots and calculations on Excel)…but what is the field really like today?


A little bit of this…




A whole lot of this…

Today, computing has permeated even this field, rapidly replacing exploratory and observational wildlife science with big-data analyses and model construction1. Even my Conservation Biology class talks about various models, equations and computation analyses in every lecture. So, for those of you seeking to enter or advance in wildlife or conservation biology, here are a few things that you should become practiced in, as employers are (and will be increasingly) looking to hire people with these skills:

  • Script writing in R – Yup, the very first thing is the same as the previous bioinformatics post. R is rapidly becoming the go-to standard for statistical and model analysis in ecology, and is widely used in and out of academia. R and R-Studio are completely free, and there is a ton of information posted online to get started or find already written code.
  • ArcGIS – This ESRI product has become the fundamental software for mapping and spatial analyses. Maps created in ArcGIS are used in a huge range of professions, from city planning, to population modeling, to business development and yes, to wildlife biology. If you are part of a University, odds are your school has access to a license, or even a course. If not, ESRI does offer free trials, and a huge array of free virtual training courses on their website.
  • MATLAB – This is similar to R, but is able to handle matrix data and is fairly user-friendly. Employers generally won’t expect an intro level person to be excellent with this, but having the foundational skills will be a nice boost to your odds of getting an interview.

It is becoming more and more frequent for the “natural sciences” to study the models of nature rather than the organisms directly. Field-loving biologists may not adore computing (I know that I don’t), but possessing these skills is becoming the field’s standard. So, if you can, take a computer science course, become familiar with the software above, and try to incorporate using them into your future projects.

A final note though. As much as we model nature, life is not a model. Computing should only be thought of as a tool, not an answer (though this is often forgotten), and to understand wildlife, we still need to get out into the field. So, for all you other field work enthusiasts, do not see this as what some call “an end to field science”, but as a way to make better use of all your effort, sweat and aches in the field!


  1. Heatwole, Harold. “Pristine Wilderness to Crippled Ecosystems: A Foray Through More Than Half a Century of Herpetology.” Journal of Herpetology 49.3 (2015): 333-42. Web.

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