Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Course Descriptions > Paleobiology


David Sunderlin

Lafayette College
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


An organismal and systems approach to the study of the marine and terrestrial fossil record. The course will focus on diversification and extinction of biotas in the context of the environmental history of Earth. Weekly laboratory and one required weekend field trip.

Course URL:
Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: College Upper (15-16)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Paleontology
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-division course that is not required in our department. It is an elective in the both the geology and biology majors at a small liberal arts school. The course meets for three 1-hour lecture sessions and one 3-hour lab per week. One required weekend field trip late in the semester. Prerequisites are any geology or any biology course.

Course Goals:

- Synthesize the general character of the fossil and stratigraphic records on Earth
- Evaluate the data that suggest major events and trends in evolutionary history of plant and animal forms
- Analyze the possible causes of major changes in Earth environments and life
- Gain proficiency using basic paleobiological methods and analysis techniques in the lab and field
- Identify major fossil groups and utilize knowledge of their age and lifestyles in making paleoenvironmental interpretations

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

This course is structured so that the nature of the data (the fossil record) and analysis of those data (morphometrics, phylogenetics, time-series analyses) is first on the agenda. We then employ those analytical skills on the organism groups that are arranged chronologically through the latter half of the course. Course activities are training sessions early on and I assess them right away as well as how they are transferable to more specific organismal data later on in the semester.

Skills Goals

  • data analysis and display using MS Excel and other computer applications

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Nearly every analytical exercise in the course has a computer component to it. Whether that is manipulating field data and displaying it in graphical form or obtaining data from paleontological databases.

Attitudinal Goals

  • build students' sense of the beauty of evolutionary processes at larger scales than are typically considered

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

We spend a good chunk of time talking about evolution from a deep time perspective. I incorporate popular reading (this past year it was a Darwin biography) in order to get students considering the broad importance of the concept.


I have graded lecture and lab exams, check in quizzes, discussion participation, group and individual exercises, and oral presentation modes of student assessment. When possible, such as in the case of oral presentations, I provide grading rubrics.


Syllabus for a course in Paleobiology (Acrobat (PDF) 279kB Aug2 09)

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