BSc Zoology / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

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
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 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.






The course comprises ten two hour lectures/workshop sessions, which are a balance between the delivery of new content and exercises and discussions regarding the topics in any given week. An overview of the content is as follows: 

Milestones in Evolution


The Evolution of Morphology




Conservation Palaeobiology


Evolution of Terrestrial Life

Taphonomy and preservation


Teaching and learning methods

Learning on this course builds between weeks. The course comprises ten sessions either delivered as two hour lectures or using a blender learning approach. In person sessions contain practical elements. The lectures are provided as powerpoints/equivalent, which are generally fairly text-light, but have important definitions and spellings on them, and are available as videos. As such there is a focus in the in person sessions 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 these sessions: the videos and website/blackboard material allow students to build their notes separately if required. There are regular opportunities in all elements 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 where appropriate. Feedback is immediate. This is augmented by the exercises which synthesise the course 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. Assessment feedback follows SEES 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

After submission and marking. 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. 





2 hours

Exam 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.

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