UCL Earth Sciences


GEOL0021 Biodiversity and Macroevolutionary Patterns

This course provides training in the most important aspects of analysing evolutionary history using the fossil record (e.g. taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography, diversity and morphometrics).

Problem-based learning forms the core teaching method, with an emphasis on student-led research.

Coordinator: Dr Sebastian Groh

Module Details
TitleBiodiversity and Macroevolutionary Patterns
UG CodeGEOL0021 
CoordinatorDr Sebastian Groh
Other Contributors 
Oral Exam20% (10 minute talk followed by 5 minutes of Q & A)

80% (three pieces of group-based research presented as 3000-5000 word reports)

Pre-RequisitesGEOL0003 History of LifeGEOL0009 Vertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution is highly desirable.
Maths & Stats Content and RequirementNone
Total Number of Hours of Student Work188 hours
Hours of Lectures/Seminars3 1-hour seminars
Hours of Practicals/Problem Classes20 hours
Hours of Tutorials0
Days of Fieldwork0

Explanation of the techniques used to construct and test evolutionary trees; Use of such trees to study fossil record quality, biodiversity, biogeographic history, morphological evolution, mass extinctions etc; A series of case studies illustrating the application of the above methods to real data (microfossils, invertebrates, vertebrates).

Examples of student projects

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The disappearance of Magatherium.  Just another extinction story? 
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Echolocation and flight; which evolved first? 

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How is the fossil record informative of behavior? 
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Bat-winged Dinosaurs. A tale of Scientific Hubris. 


The aims are to provide students with:

  • A working knowledge of how phylogenetic trees are constructed, and the strengths and weaknesses of analytical methods;
  • An understanding of the role of phylogenetic trees in palaeontological research (e.g. functional morphology, biodiversity, biogeography etc.);
  • Non-phylogenetic approaches to macroevolutionary pattern reconstruction (e.g. taxic diversity estimation, morphometrics);
  • A clear appreciation of the history of life during the Phanerozoic, especially with regard to large-scale macroevolutionary patterns such as mass extinction events and the impact of geological/climatic change on organismal distributions.

A problem-oriented teaching approach will allow students to ask questions about the evolutionary history of a group of their choosing, and then attempt to answer such questions using the methods discussed in the course.


By the end of the course, students should:

  • Be able to build phylogenetic trees and use them as part of their palaeontological research;
  • Be able to select the appropriate methods and statistical tests for a particular palaeontological analysis.
  • Have an appreciation of current methodological problems and controversies relating to evolutionary history;
  • Be able to describe key evolutionary events that occurred during the Phanerozoic and discuss the competing explanations for such events.
  • Write a report summarizing our current state of knowledge of the evolution of a selected group of organisms, the quality of its fossil record, and what research needs to be carried out in the near future.