Martin B. Farley,
University of North Carolina at Pembroke


Survey of paleontology for upper-level departmental majors, earth science education majors, and others. Course combines lecture and lab across invertebrates, plants, and microfossils (vertebrates treated only indirectly in a couple of lab activities) and the major kinds of scientific questions that fossils can address. The course meets university requirements for a writing-enriched course.

Course Size:
Less than 15

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

Upper-level paleontology course offered in the Fall of odd-numbered years. While it has prerequisites of Historical Geology and its lab and Introduction to Biology, students who come to me can generally have the prerequisites waived. Principally this applies to Biology majors lacking the geology, but sometimes applies to our students who are out of sequence because this course is every other year and Historical Geology is only offered once per year.

There is no separate lab but I conduct class as integrated lecture and lab with transitions to lab occuring when appropriate (even in mid-period).

While I don't want to emphasize taxonomy, I do believe students should be able to recognize major fossil groups. Even if students in this course have already had Historical Geology, their recollection of the fossils from that is usually slight. This leads me to spend a fair bit of the course on invertebrate and plant fossil groups.

I don't expect that any students taking this course will become professional paleontologists, which affects the lecture material and which lab activities I choose.

Course Content:

Surveys major invertebrate fossil, plant, and microfossil groups including lab examination. Includes class activities on use of fossils to solve scientific problems (some activities involve vertebrates).

Course Goals:

Students should be able to:

Recognize how taphonomy affects what we see as a fossil record and establish hypotheses for how preservation modes affect what information remains

Recognize major groups of invertebrates, especially those that occur on the NC Coastal Plain

Recognize fossil groups that are important but not visible because they are microscopic

Interpret fossil abundance and occurrence data to solve biostratigraphic, paleoecologic, evolutionary, or paleoclimatic questions

Other skills:

Build student skills in graphing or other exploratory data analysis

Improve student writing (as a UNCP writing-enriched class, this requires more than just a paper and its drafts but lab reports and informal writing assignments)

Course Features:

Integrated lecture and lab with transition to lab activities at the appropriate time (even if in mid-period)

Aside from fossil specimen labs, the lab activities concentrate on data exercises addressing key scientific questions.

The course paper allows students to investigate further a topic that interests them. These can be on the history of a particular group (e.g., Taxodiaceae) or use of paleontology to address various scientific questions not covered by the class itself. I have a list of topics that have worked for my students in the past, but each time, new topics come up.

Course Philosophy:

Most of my courses above the most introductory level are integrated lectures and lab. As I get more lab-type activities that are relevant to my students' abilities and needs, I shrink material covered solely by lecture.


Quizzes about every two weeks rather than midterm exams; drawings and written paragraphs for fossil groups; lab exercises and reports; paper on paleontologic topic; final exam.


Syllabus Syllabus Fall13 (Microsoft Word 42kB May23 14)

References and Notes:

Textbook: Richard Fortey, 2009, Fossils--The History of Life, 2nd ed: Sterling

I selected this text because it covers all fossil group including plants and microfossils (omission of these is a serious gap in many texts) and has information on all major applications. It is also inexpensive (it is a trade book with a list price of $30). The major weakness is that essentially all the illustrations of fossils are of museum-exhibit quality specimens, which are typical. The book is not aimed at people wishing to be professional paleontologists, but that is fine with me.