Introduction to Paleontology

Jack Farmer

Arizona State University
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


The course presents an overview of the evolution of our biosphere based on the data of the fossil and molecular records. There is an emphasis on the geological and biological factors that appear to have regulated biodiversity over geologic time. The course emphasizes an understanding biological relationships and processes. This is generally at the expense of detailed systematic (classification-based) treatments of fossil groups.

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


Course Context:

This is an upper division core course for students majoring in geological sciences and an elective for biology students. Pre-requisites include historical geology or introductory biology (preferably both) and permission of the instructor. The course has a required 4 hr lab each week, two one-day field trips and an afternoon fieldtrip to visit a local natural history museum.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to:
  1. Accurately describe key aspects of the skeletal morphology of the major animal phyla (based on the basic features, like symmetry, skeletal type and mode of growth, patterns of ontogenetc development, etc.).
  2. Understand the functional morphology of major fossil groups, including how musculo-skeletal and hydrostatic systems are employed in fulfilling basic functions, like locomotion, respiration, feeding and reproduction.
  3. Know something of the basic lifestyle and ecological role played by major organism groups in ecosystems, including where and how they live and their trophic interactions, etc.
  4. Understand the nature of fossil information, how it is preserved and what is lost (i.e., taphonomic processes and biases in preservation)
  5. Understand the Darwinian evolution by natural selection, the basic mechanisms for the origin of species, how microevolutionary processes connect to macroevolutionary trends in the fossil record, factors that affect the tempo and mode of diversification, patterns of family level diversification and extinction during the Phanerozoic, important factors in species extinction and how the morphological species concept in the fossil record.
  6. The historical development of the species concept, of evolution and extinction and the geologic time scale.

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

The course spends a lot of time up front laying a foundation for understanding how species originate and the basic processes that drive evolutionary change. Major concepts (species, evolution, geologic time, etc.) are introduced from a historical perspective, with key ideas being traced to their conceptual roots. Concepts introduced in class are supported with hands on activities in-class and through group discussions. These activities are designed to engage students in specimen-based problem solving. Similarly, the labs are organized around the major lecture themes, with an emphasis on developing concept sketches to quickly encapsulate major ideas.

Skills Goals

Each in class exercise or lab activity requires students to write short essay style responses and to summarize key concepts as annotated sketches made from specimens and using process-based models for natural systems. Several of the exercises (e.g. allometry in skeletal growth, morphometric classification of shell types, etc.)involve making skeletal measurements and calculating summary statistics. Students are provided extra credit options to carry out independent studies that provide connections to the professional literature. Lectures include many student lead group exercises and discussions.

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

Assessment of performance is based on participation in class discussions and lab activities, in field trips and scores on essay-style exams. Labs emphasize specimen-based observations, with an emphasize on identifying key morphological attributes of fossil groups and relationships between form and function (ecology). Investigations are often hypothesis-driven activities, with an emphasis on how to test alternative hypotheses. Interpretive activities are focused on the reconstruction of past environments and ecologies as a basis for understanding observed patterns of evolutionary change.

Attitudinal Goals

My main goal in the course is to get students to actually look at fossil organisms, and really see their major morphological attributes, then to ask questions about the functional significance of different forms in the organism. I find that havijng students sketch what they see is key to enhance their observational skills. In lab I often ask students to re-sketch a specimen until they have noticed everything important feature. It seems that every time they go back, they see something "new". Sometimes this changes how they think about relationships between form-function. At the beginning, most students dislike having to draw everything they see. But by the end, they are usually quite fluent with their drawings and definitely more observant and with greater confidence about their interpretations.

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

Students have greater confidence about how to gather observations.

Designing alternative hypotheses and tests and seeking to disprove their pet idea builds a healthy skepticism about how science works.

Most students develop a greater concern for preserving biodiversity and also a greater tolerance for animals they were initially replused by (e.g. slimy things like worms and snails).


Performance on essay style exams and lab practicals. Participation in classroom discussions and field trips.


GLG 430 Introduction to Paleontology (Acrobat (PDF) 272kB Jun16 09)

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