Fossil Systematic Description Project

Samantha Hopkins, University of Oregon
Author Profile


Students describe an unknown vertebrate fossil (or fossils, if multiple specimens are necessary for identification). This exercise is the culmination of their lab studies in the morphology of the vertebrate skeleton and requires them to integrate their ability to describe the morphology with research into the literature on their assigned animal. Students also become familiar with presentation of research through writing a formal scientific paper in the style of a particular journal.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Undergraduate/graduate course in vertebrate paleontology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

morphology of the vertebrate skeleton (this can be ongoing as the term project proceeds), basics of scientific writing style

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the term-long project for the course, integrating the lecture content (which is about processes of vertebrate evolution) with the morphology of a fossil vertebrate.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Description of morphology, animal systematics and taxonomy

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Evaluating variation in morphology to discern taxonomically important differences from those that represent within-species variation, Synthesis of existing systematic knowledge, inferring paleoecology and natural history from fossil specimens

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing a scientific paper, following journal format instructions, searching the taxonomic literature

Description and Teaching Materials

The handout describes the assignment for students; The formatting instructions for the paper are available at The instructor must provide the specimens that the students describe; each student is assigned a specimen relevant to their research interests (if they have any), but is not told what the instructors know about the identity of what they have been given to study. The scoring rubric below is used to grade students' papers.
Fossil vertebrate description project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Jun9 14)
Taxonomy paper grading rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 10kB Jun9 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on the material students are given to describe, this project can require a certain amount of gentle guidance to get students to find the right answer. This project would be easily adaptable to fossil invertebrates, plants, or microfossils, as well. One of the larger issues is getting students secure access to the fossils; this requires instructor time to get them to the fossils at a time and place where they can be supervised. The instructor need not know what the specimens are before they are assigned to the students, so this project can be a good way to get new field collections identified, as long as you can separate taxa from one another.


The paper is graded on the accuracy of the taxonomic identification, as well as the quality of the writing and the descriptive work. The figures are also graded on whether they adequately communicate the morphology of the specimen.

References and Resources