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The Vertebrate Fossil Record


  • Credit value: 15 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Charles Underwood
  • Assessment: two scientific papers (10% and 15%) and a three-hour examination (75%)

Module description

In this module you will learn about the origin and evolution of the vertebrates, and the interpretation of the vertebrate fossil record. We will introduce all of the main vertebrate groups, living and extinct, and discuss their evolution and interrelationships. Particular emphasis will be placed on major evolutionary innovations  such as the evolution of jaws and teeth, terrestrialisation, advanced senses and flight. Recent advances in the field in the form of newly discovered specimens and new methods will be discussed.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction to deuterostomes, chordates and vertebrates; jawless vertebrates
  • Evolution of jaws and teeth; placoderms and chondrichthyans
  • Evolution of bones, skeletal and dental development
  • Actinopterygian and sarcopterygian ‘fish’
  • Conquest of the land, tetrapod skeleton
  • Amphibian grade tetrapods, lissamphibians
  • Full terrestrialisation and the amniotic egg; early amniotes and amniote classification
  • Parareptiles
  • Secondary aquatic adaptations
  • Early diapsids, turtles, squamates
  • Archosaurs, crocodilians
  • Evolution of flight - pterosaurs
  • Non avian dinosaurs
  • Evolution of feathers, flight - birds
  • Early synapsids and evolution of mammalian characters
  • Mesozoic mammal origins, egg-laying mammals
  • Marsupials and other metatheria
  • Placentals and post-Mesozoic radiation
  • Primate evolution and appearance of humans

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a clear overall knowledge of vertebrate evolution and the vertebrate fossil record
  • demonstrate familiarity with the main methods used in vertebrate palaeontology
  • demonstrate the skills and knowledge necessary to investigate the skeletal anatomy of vertebrates
  • demonstrate the skills and knowledge necessary to study and collect vertebrate fossils in the field
  • apply critical and communication skills gained in this module to this and other fields.