Paleontology, Paleoecology and Paleoenvironments

Emma Rainforth

Ramapo College of New Jersey
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


This is an interdisciplinary course in which students will use paleontology and sedimentology to interpret ancient environments and the ecosystems they supported. Students will begin with a review of aspects of geology required for paleontological studies: geologic time, plate tectonics, and sedimentary rocks and their depositional environments. There will also be a review of evolutionary theory and ecological and paleoecological principles. The bulk of the course is split into two sections. First, an overview of the major depositional environments, the typical fossil organisms that are found preserved in them, the processes of fossilization, and how the ecosystems of particular environments have changed through time. This will be followed by a survey of the history of life, with case studies in which we will examine several important fossiliferous units in both marine and terrestrial settings, and use paleontological (biological) and sedimentological (geological) data to reconstruct the paleoecology and ancient physical environment. Lab sessions will include fossil identification and analysis and several field visits to sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

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Course Context:

This is an upper division required course in the Environmental Science major, and serves as an elective in the Biology major; 85% of the students are ES majors. The prerequisite is 100-level geology or biology (with geology recommended). The course has a required three-hour lab, which includes two half-day and one all-day field trips.

Course Goals:

1. Students should be able to interpret the mode of life of an unidentified fossil specimen. (Students will be required to identify the fossil, analyze its functional morphology and consider the mode of life of other members of this fossil group.)
2. Students should be able to analyze a fossil assemblage and reconstruct its geological and paleoenvironmental contexts. (Students will be required to identify the fossils present, determine the probable age of the assemblage, analyze the rock and ascertain the probable environment of deposition, and determine if the assemblage is a life or death assemblage.)

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

In one of the field labs late in the semester, students go through the process of analyzing an assemblage; the lab grade assesses the first two goals. The lab final exam (in which students work in small groups) repeats this process. The third goal is assessed in a weekly 'paleontology in the news' journal assignment.

Skills Goals

Students should be able to effectively communicate paleontological information both orally and in writing. (Students will be required to formulate a hypothesis, obtain and critically evaluate authoritative information, and present a formal paper (both in writing and orally).)

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

The paper and presentation are graded using a rubric (which is provided to the student at the beginning of the semester). Some class time is dedicated to the development of writing and presentation skills.

Attitudinal Goals

Students should be able to explain the importance of paleontology to other realms of knowledge including geology, biology, and 'global change'

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

Students complete a weekly assignment in which they summarize a news article or new paper from that week, and reflect on it's significance. At the end of semester students review their entire journal and reflect on the assignment.


Rubrics for field lab reports, paper, presentation.
Peer grading (paper, presentation).
Exams (written and lab final, and two mini-midterms)


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 173kB May28 09)

Additional Assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 646kB May28 09)

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