Vertebrate Paleontology

Samantha Hopkins,
University of Oregon


This course is a survey of vertebrate evolutionary history as recorded in the fossil record. In order to understand the vertebrate fossil record, students study the morphology of vertebrate skeletons in the lab, mainly using extant vertebrate skeletons; fossil vertebrates are included when specimens are available.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Course Context:

This is a grad/undergrad course that serves as the introduction to the field of vertebrate paleo for new grad students and as an upper division course for paleo-focused biology, anthropology, and geology students. Students are required to have a course in historical geology beforehand, although the requirement is commonly waived if they have substantial experience in a related area. Typically, roughly half of the students are pursuing vertebrate paleontology as a research interest. This course serves to give paleo-focus student specific knowledge of fossil history, but also gives upper division depth to students not focusing on paleontology.

Course Content:

This course covers the history of vertebrate evolution with a focus on the evolutionary processes driving the changes in ecological composition of vertebrate faunas and the appearance of novel morphologies and ecologies. Students also learn the basics of identifying skeletal material in the laboratory. The course field trip takes the students to collect vertebrate fossils with a National Park crew at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The term project requires students to describe an unknown vertebrate fossil.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will be able to describe the history of vertebrate evolution.
  2. Students will recognize the role of natural selection in the interaction between Earth's dynamics and the evolving vertebrate lineages
  3. Students will be able to recognize isolated elements of the vertebrate skeleton, both taxonomically and anatomically, and will be able to use morphology to make inferences about ecology.

Course Features:

I seek in lecture to take them through the survey of vertebrate diversity through an examination of how the interactions with the biological and physical environment shaped the major features of vertebrate evolution. The students have a term-long project in which they describe an unknown vertebrate specimen systematically. The assignment culminates in a paper in the form of a submittable manuscript for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Course Philosophy:

The course is intended to give students the familiarity with vertebrate history to dive into more detailed studies of the field, or to use this knowledge to inform their work in related areas. Because my students are generally using a knowledge of paleontology either directly in their area of focus or as it informs a related area of study, I feel that the survey is necessary, but that it need not simply be a walk through diversity, but rather a process-driven explanation of how evolutionary history reflects natural selection.


Students are assessed with two in-class exams, a term project, lab quizzes, and a field trip assignment.


Vertebrate Paleontology syllabus (Microsoft Word 36kB Jun9 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Benton, Michael. Vertebrate Paleontology, 4th Ed.
It does the best job of all the texts I've seen of surveying diversity of vertebrates in light of the context of their evolutionary history.

I have a set of lab handouts that I developed for a related course in graduate school.