UCL Earth Sciences


GEOL0009 Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution

This course provides an overview of the evolution of vertebrates, and the palaeobiological methods used to analyse phenomena such as mass extinctions. There is a major practical component which focuses on teaching vertebrate anatomy and how to identify the main groups.

Coordinator: Dr Sebastian Groh

Module details
TitleVertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution
UG CodeGEOL0009
CoordinatorDr Sebastian Groh
Other ContributorsGuest lecturers
Credit15 credits
Written Exam40% (2.5 hrs unseen)
Department Exam 30% (2 hrs unseen)
Coursework30% (extended essay) or 100% (as an alternative assessment)
Pre-RequisitesGEOL0003 History of Life for Earth Sciences students
Maths & Stats Content and RequirementThere are no mathematical skills required for this course. Topics with partially mathematical aspects, such as the use of randomisation tests, are covered in the course from first principles.
Total Number of Hours of Student Work188 hours
Hours of Lectures/Seminars18 hours
Hours of Practicals/Problem Classes18 hours
Hours of Tutorials0
Days of FieldworkOne half-day trip to the Natural History Museum
Categorizing Student Performance Levels

The course will provide an introduction to the principles of chemistry required for considering the fundamental geochemical processes operating in the Earth system. Topics will include:

  • Atomic structure and The Periodic Table;
  • Isotopes, isotopic notation, radioactivity and decay mechanisms;
  • Valency and bonding in Earth materials;
  • Elements in the Universe and the Earth;
  • The chemistry and structure of common minerals;
  • An introduction to thermodynamics and mineral stability;
  • Fluids, including silicate melts and aqueous solutions;
  • Chemical reactions in aqueous solutions.


The main aim is to use vertebrates to illustrate the use of analytical methods to study evolutionary patterns and processes.

The course provides an introduction to the major vertebrate groups [jawless vertebrates, placoderms, cartilaginous fish, ray-finned fish, lobe-finned fish, early tetrapods, modern amphibians, lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals]. The core of the course concerns the anatomy and evolutionary relationships of these groups, which are examined through lectures, practical classes and museum tours.

The methods introduced by these lectures include phylogenetic analysis, cladistic biogeography, taxic and phylogenetic diversity estimation, and the use of Finite Element Analysis in biomechanics.

We examine evolutionary phenomena such as exaptation and adaptation, heterochrony, extinction, adaptive radiation, and the influence of physical factors on evolutionary history. To broaden the scope of the course, some plant, invertebrate and microfossil groups are also discussed, particularly in relation to major events such as the invasion of the land and the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.


Students should:

  • show an ability to identify members of particular vertebrate groups;
  • be able to analyse the functional significance of particular anatomical features;
  • be able to apply phylogenetic and other analytical techniques;
  • have developed a more detailed understanding of key evolutionary events such as the end-Cretaceous extinction.