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BSc Zoology with Industrial/Professional Experience / Course details

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Evolution and Palaeobiology

Course unit fact file
Unit code EART22101
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 5
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Available as a free choice unit? No


Life has a deep history. Its origins lie more than 3000-million years ago, and the time since has been defined by constant change: lineages have transformed, split, and become extinct over geological time, and life itself has terraformed our planet. All of this is the result of evolution. This course will explore the evolution of life in deep time, from its origins and the earliest known fossils, through major evolutionary transitions, to the ecosystems alive today. It will explore: the patterns and processes of evolution in deep time; the fossil record, what it can tell us, and how to interpret it within an evolutionary context; how life interacts with the Earth, and how we can use past life to address current global environmental challenges. Key topics include: evolution and the tree of life, palaeoecology and palaeoenvironments, extinction, conservation palaeobiology, and the preservation of fossils.

This course unit detail provides the framework for delivery in 20/21 and may be subject to change due to any additional Covid-19 impact.  Please see Blackboard / course unit related emails for any further updates.



This course has four primary aims:

-- To provide an overview of major milestones and transitions in the history of life, highlighting the evolutionary and geological context of these through deep time.

-- To explore the patterns and processes of evolution over a wide range of timescales, the structure of the tree of life, and how we can better understand both of these using the fossil record in addition to living groups.

-- To cover topics in palaeoecology including how fossils can tell us about past environments - and thus elucidate palaeoclimates across Earth History.

-- To introduce biodiversity patterns through life history, including extinctions and conservation palaeobiology.




Learning outcomes


On the successful completion of the course, students will be able to:




Describe major transitions in the history of life on earth in the context of evolutionary theory using multiple lines of evidence, both geological and biological.




Explain the fundamentals of evolutionary processes, from small scale changes to macro-evolutionary trends in deep time.




Place organisms in an evolutionary tree using phylogenetics, relating that to the broader context of the tree of life built from morphological and genetic data.




Evaluate uncertainty in interpretations of evolutionary history given incompleteness and preservational biases of the fossil record.




Use fossil data to infer the ecology of extinct organisms and changes in ecology and diversity of life through time and space, particularly in the context of extinctions and conservation palaeobiology.






Lecture - Evolution and deep time This session will provide the basics from which others will build, covering the fundamentals of evolution but within a deep time / high level context. In particular, it will cover both natural selection and drift, drawing examples from molecular and morphological evolution as appropriate, and with a number of these drawn from the fossil record. It will then move on to consider species concepts, how species form, and how they interact.

Lecture - The Tree of Life and phylogeneticsThis will cover the tree of life - how it is structured, and how we can work this out from organisms and fossils. Topics will include: cladistics, including characters, homology, homoplasy, convergence, genetic sequences, parsimony, heuristic searches, and likelihood methods; taxonomy, classification and systematics, and how these differ from phylogenies; interpreting phylogenies; fossils in phylogenies; molecular clocks; and an overview of the tree of life.

Lecture - Adaptation and Macro-evolution (Rates and Trends)What is the source of diversity, and how can lineages evolve over deep time? This session will study the many mechanisms by which adaptation can occur, including - as examples - mutations and genetic variability, coevolution, and shifts in development. 

Lecture - Evolutionary milestones.This will provide an overview of important evolutionary milestones in the first 3000-million years of evolution. Throughout there will be a focus on how these appear in the fossil record. 

Lecture  - Biogeography and Palaeobiogeography Here we will consider the global distribution of species and ecosystems, starting with those patterns present on Earth today, and then taking this insight and applying it to our observations from the fossil record. 

Lecture - Palaeoecology and Palaeoenvironments This session will consider the principles of palaeoecology, including: niches, gradients and controls to biotic distribution; limiting factors on the distribution of organisms; statistical approaches to biodiversity in deep time; Sepkoski curves; and highlight the possible impact of fossil biases and preservation Paleoecological conclusions. 

Lecture - Conservation Palaeobiology This lecture will build on the contents of the extinction lecture by introducing the relatively new and fast-developing field of conservation biology - i.e. how the geological and fossil records can help us to address current problems in conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services, and addressing the impact that human activity is having on these. 

Lecture - Taphonomy and preservation This part of the course will introduce the field of taphonomy - the study of fossil preservation. In addition to an introduction to the topic, it will highlight: Modes of preservation of fossils - mould / cast / replacement / impressions / amber / nodules; processes of fossilisation and decay - controls / decomposition / pathways / transport; exceptional preservation and Lagerstätten; experimental taphonomy; and

Lecture - Extinction This lecture charts the history of extinctions over geological time, and introduces Sepkoski curves and its impact on evolution, causes of extinctions, mass extinctions, and subsequent recoveries and surviving taxa. It will give an overview of the big five mass extinctions. It will conclude with a focus on the sixth, currently occurring mass extinction - the current levels of extinction, their causes, and how this compares with the geological record of comparable events. 

Lecture - Evolution of terrestrial life


Teaching and learning methods

Learning on this course builds between weeks. The course comprises ten two hour lectures, which also contain practical elements. The lectures are provided as powerpoints/equivalent, which are generally fairly text-light, but have important definitions and spellings on them. As such there is a focus in the lectures on providing the learning content of the course verbally, with regular breaks for discussion and opportunities to ask questions for clarification of topics as required. As such, it is essential that students attend lectures: these are also podcast to allow students to build their notes separately if required. There are regular opportunities in all lectures for formative assessment where the students are provided with a question and asked to - in a group or individually - discuss the answer to this, followed by a class discussion. There are, on average, two such discussions every lecture. Feedback is immediate. This is augmented by the exercises which synthesise the lecture material and provide opportunities to consolidate this knowledge. As mentioned above, the blackboard for the course includes a reading list, and each lecture has key literature included on the site to provide directed further reading for the students. This can be supported by the slides, which are fully referenced with key sources throughout the course. As such this course balances lectures and small group exercises in contact time, with clear expectations and signposting for the associated independent study.


Every element of summative assessment has associated feedback. At the start of the course the students will be provided feedforward (once available) on the Blackboard site for the course, and also as part of the lecture when the assessments are set. Feedback for the written assessment is provided through turnitin within two weeks; format follows best pedagogical practice, and focusses on key areas for improvement with the option of a full feedback session to discuss in more depth. Exam feedback follows DEES policy.


Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 70%
Written assignment (inc essay) 30%

Feedback methods


Assessment type

% Weighting within unit

Hand out and hand in dates



How, when and what feedback is provided

ILO tested

Written assessment


Website / wordpress site / blog post


HO - wk 1; HI - wk 5

2000 words

Within 2 weeks. Feedback will focus on key point(s) and be delivered via grademark on turnitin, or using blackboard depending on the exact implementation of this assessment. All students who want more feedback are encouraged to contact RJG for a meeting.


Open book assessment


January exam period

2 hours

Feedback session.

ILO 2 - 5


Recommended reading

An official reading list created using library infrastructure will be created and linked to from blackboard in advance of the first delivery of the course. Key texts will be:

Futuyma, D. and Kirkpatrick, M., 2017. Evolution. Sinauer. Sunderland, MA.
Benton, M.J. and Harper, D.A., 2013. Introduction to paleobiology and the fossil record. John Wiley & Sons.

Additional directed reading is provided on blackboard within the folder for each lecture.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 80

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Russell Garwood Unit coordinator
Robert Sansom Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Return to course details



Example student activity

Total Hours

New material

Consolidation and Practice

Contact time (students are in front of staff)

Lecture (new material)

Mostly listening & taking notes (mostly new material)




Lecture (revision/examples)

Mostly listening & taking notes (no new material- revision of course)




Practical (new material and practice.  Typically 25-50% of practical  time is spent on new material)

Interactive individual or group work (problem solving, experiments, watching demonstrations, describing and interpreting samples, paper-based exercises, computer-based exercises)





Interactive small group work




Seminar/examples class

Working on and discussing questions




Independent study time

Pre/post lecture work

Reading own notes, re-solving examples, prep work, revisit podcast




Pre/post practical work/write up

Complete practical work, prep work, reading feedback