How this year will work... And what might change.

As of August 2021 we're getting a clearer picture of how the course will be delivered this year – I explain further how it will work at the start of the year in the video below. We can choose (and may be forced, in the case of COVID19 restrictions) to change how the course is delivered. It is currently our intention three weeks into the course to discuss with you the alternatives, but your feedback welcome throughout.

An element of our delivery this year will be through websites such as this or Blackboard folders, each of which supports a week's worth of material. Rob and Russell are really looking forward to teaching you all, and we're determined to do a really good job of providing you with all the material and resources – and hopefully sparking an interest in the course material – no matter what the pandemic throws at us.

Video - Course information

Some material will be delivered through videos, such as the one below. Online materials will also include (optional!) mini-tests, exercises, and other things to do. Each video will have a summary below it. Here you can find an example of such a video - this one has some key information about the course. Please take the time to watch, as it has some key information about how we'll be delivering EART22101 this year.


Key points to take away from this video are:

  • This is going to be fun &bdash; we've worked really hard to make sure you have some great teaching resources for the unit.
  • We'll be covering a wide range of topics in the evolution of life, from its origins through to today.
  • Full course details are available in Blackboard under the "Course information" link on the left.
  • Russell has aged whilst writing and delivering this course under COVID.


  • The remote material will be supported with in person sessions from the first week of teaching (Thursday the first week, Tuesdays the following weeks)
  • There remains a risk that COVID regulations will change, and in person sessions are forced to switch to online delivery during the term. Russell and Rob will try and give you as much notice as possible if this is the case.
  • We also currently have an optional, one hour drop in session timetabled in case you have questions about the course. This is there for you to use, but is not compulsory.
  • Since this is quite a lot to remember, Russell intends to email with information about the course at the beginning of each week.

Note: Sorry that the video quality on this is not to the standard of my other videos! I had to record it in a six hour window between the timetable being confirmed a leaving on fieldwork. Once I'm back I'll post an improved version!


We have loads of interesting topics lined up, which range across palaeobiology and evolution … and 4,000 million years of time. The sessions are organised as follows:

Milestones in evolution

We start with a brief history of life as we know it. This session covers evolutionary milestones in the first 3000-million years of evolution, including: early earth, the origin of life and abiogenesis; early evolution and the last universal common ancestor, then splits between Archaea and Bacteria; the great oxygenation event; eukaryotes, and their origin through endosymbiosis; the origins of sexual reproduction; the evolution of multicellularity; Ediacaran fossils - their affinities and taphonomy; the origin of animals in the Cambrian explosion.

Evolution of Morphology

How do the processes of natural selection scale from mutations, to populations, to species, to large-scale macroevolutionary change over geological time? We look into the theory, evidence, and limits of evolution and the processes that shape biodiversity.


All organisms on earth are related to each other in the tree of life. Phylogenetics aims to reconstruct those evolutionary relationships. In this session we explore phylogenies (evolutionary trees), how to build them, how to interpret them, their uses and their limitations. Also, we have a go at building one!.


Here we will chart the history of extinctions over geological time, and dig into their impact on evolution. We’ll think about the causes of extinctions, mass extinctions, and subsequent recoveries and surviving taxa. Plus we will meet the big five mass extinctions. Sadly, we’ll conclude by looking at the sixth, currently occurring mass extinction, and how this compares with the geological record of comparable events.


This session we’ll meet some principles of palaeoecology, including things such as niches, gradients and controls to biotic distribution. We’ll also dig into statistical approaches to biodiversity in deep time, and highlight the possible impact of fossil biases and preservation on paleoecological conclusions. We’ll study how ecology interacts with environment, and thus why fossils can tell us about past environments and ultimately climates.


Evolution occurs on different scales, and in this session we'll cover the fundamentals of evolution over large timescales. Think of it as a low down on the patterns and processes of evolution as they play out over 100,000s to millions of years.

Conservation palaeobiology

Conservation palaeobiology is a new and fast-developing field - by thinking about the geological and fossil records, we can understand and hopefully address current problems in conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services. This session will allow us to introduce some key considerations in the field through some cool case studies.


Life is distributed across the globe, and in this session we’ll consider the patterns we see in species and ecosystems. We’ll cover both those present on Earth today, but also those that we can reconstruct in geological time. It’ll be super cool.


Here we’ll meet the field of taphonomy - the study of fossil preservation. In addition to our introduction, well learn about modes of preservation of fossils, processes of fossilisation and decay, experimental taphonomy, and things called taphonomic windows. We’ll use this to think about information loss and taphonomic bias, and how this might be impacting (if not accounted for) our understanding of evolutionary trends and concepts when we study the fossil record.

Evolution of terrestrial life

The terrestrialisation of life is a major topic! Here we’ll get the low down on how and when life moved from the sea to the land, the challenges it faced, and the evolutionary events that have happened since.


On the odd occasion, we'll need to look at some fossils. I'll bring some along in person for live sessions, but we're also able to look at neat fossils using the wonders of technology!

Below you should be able to see a 3D model of a fossils, in this case a trilobite. Clicking on it will load a 3D model, and then you can click and drag to rotate it. Give it a shot!

Since you're here, I'll assume you're interested in fossils - this magnificent arthropod is the trilobite Eldredgeops crassituberculata from the Middle Devonian (~390 Ma) Silica Formation of Ohio. Longest dimension of specimen is approximately 5 cm. Source.


Your browser may only allow you to load one model at once - if you need to close a model, you can click close on the top right. Please do email me if you're having problems loading the 3D models.

Video - Some more course information

Things aren't back to normality yet, and some of the tools we're using this year are a bit differernt to how teaching has traditionally been delivered. We've been working really hard for the last year to ensure that everything is really good, and will be robust to changes in delivery due to the pandemic.

Below is a video we made when we first started on this journey last year. Some elements will change this year (we have in person sessions!) but almost all of what is in this video – "Russell and Rob in conversation" – still applies. We chat aout some of they key things we'll cover, why it all matters, and our expectations for the course. It also demonstrates why neither Russell nor Rob are likely to be able to make a living working in light entertainment.


Key points to take away from this video are:

  • The topics we're covering are united by looking at evolution over long time periods; and trying to better understand the biosphere, and the impact humans are having on it.
  • These are exciting and important topics. Theodosius Dobzhansky said it better than we ever could:

  • Zoom sessions from last year will be in person this year, at least at the start of term. The in-person sessions will mostly be around an hour. We expect to rarely use both of the two currently timetabled hours (if we did there would just be too much content for you every week!). These will provide opportunities to ask questions, and for us to discuss and dig a little deeper into the course content, and we will use them to get feedback on the course's organisation.


We have regular timetabled slots (1 hour - entirely optional - sessions) which are there to give you the opportunity to ask questions about the course and its contents. You are also always welcome to contact us by email — all the details you need are on Blackboard.

To get back to blackboard

The left hand link at the bottom of the page (just below) will always take you back to blackboard. The arrow to the top of this page. To the right of these you can find some social media links for the department, the palaeontology research group, and then me, should you ever wish to follow what is going on while we can't be in the same room!