Introduction to Paleontology

Hilary Christensen,
Bates College


This course introduces students to the basics of paleontological study, including methodology, specimen identification, and major events in the history of life on Earth. The basics of evolutionary theory are included as well. The labs focus on specimen drawing and identification, as well as aspects of the ecology and life habit of extinct organisms.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a 200-level course in Geology; either Principles of Geology or Environmental Geochemistry is required as a prerequisite. The class is cross-listed in the Biology department, so approximately 25% of the class is made up of biology majors (for whom the prerequisite requirement is often waived with instructor consent). This course has a mandatory lab.

Course Content:

This course is designed for both Bio and Geo majors and incorporates approximately 50% of its content from each discipline. The lab covers a different phylum each week, and the students learn how to identify and describe the ecology of important groups of organisms through geologic time via observation and drawing. The course integrates biological theory with the geologic record; students learn to connect the two by study of the fossil record.

Course Goals:

I want the students to be able to use fossils as evidence of past ecologies and environmental conditions. They should be able to use observations to make inferences about a given rock and/or fossil, and relate these observations to biological and geological processes.

Students will be able to identify major groups of flora and fauna and describe their relative importance through time. They will also be aware of how feedbacks from the rock record and living organisms influence one another.

Students will be able to evaluate data, assumptions, and logic associated with evolutionary and geologic thought

Students will be able to use library resources/primary literature to write a concise and clear summary of the current state of research devoted to a paleontological topic.

Course Features:

The course culminates in a semester-long final paper, integrating the critical reading of primary literature used during the course into a paleontological topic of their choosing. The students integrate what they have learned about evolution, geology, and biology into a final product that describes the current state of research on their topic.

Course Philosophy:

My own research incorporates a great deal of biology, and I welcome the chance to integrate the two subjects in a classroom setting. This also enables the class to be cross-listed with biology, resulting in a more diverse group of students with different interests and career goals. The lab is mandatory for this class because working with specimens is critical for paleontology, particularly observation-based analysis. Lab time also enables me to have a few hours a week to work one on one with the students, something that I have found is helpful both for their comprehension of the material and for me to identify subjects that may need better explanation.


This course has three lecture exams and two lab practicals. The lab practicals focus on specimen identification and interpretation, while the lecture exams evaluate their understanding of the material presented in lecture (evolutionary theory, major events in Earth history, etc.). The course culminates in a final literature review paper.


Syllabus for Introduction to Paleontology (Microsoft Word 107kB Jun11 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record
I was a visiting professor at Gustavus, and this was the text previously used during this course. I also feel that it has a good balance of theory and case studies, which I use regularly.