Evolution of Extinct Animals

Phil Novack-Gottshall, Benedictine University
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Initial Publication Date: May 2, 2018 | Reviewed: March 2, 2023


A classroom/lab activity using the Paleobiology Database to produce and interpret diversity curves for various groups of important and popular extinct animals, such as trilobites, ammonites, and dinosaurs. Activity helps students appreciate ancient life, geological time, and the important of mass extinctions in shaping the history of life, and by extension the implications of current extinctions.


  1. Research how extinct animals lived, what they looked like, when they lived, and when they went extinct.
  2. Observe the geological timescale, name three geological eras, and use them to understand geological time.
  3. Name five major mass extinctions and relate them to the eras in which they occurred.
  4. Use the Paleobiology Database to produce diversity curves for an important group of extinct animals.
  5. Interpret graphs of diversity curves to understand the importance of mass extinctions in the history of life.
  6. (Optional) Communicate results of study to peers in class. In the process, synthesize information on multiple extinct animal groups to better appreciate the importance of extinctions in earth history.

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Earth science, geology, or biology class focused on evolution, extinction, organismal biology (biodiversity) and geological time.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students require access to the internet and should be proficient interacting with websites to generate data and to save/print downloaded images.

How the activity is situated in the course

Stand-alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  1. Using the geological timescale, understand that animal life has existed for hundreds of millions of years on Earth.
  2. Many major and successful groups of life are now extinct, and mass extinctions have played an important role in the extinction of many of these successful groups of animals. These extinctions have also allowed geologists to use the fossil record to tell time.
  3. Use diversity curves to interpret how diversity has changed through time in different groups of animals.
  4. Research what ancient animals looked like, how they lived, and during what time they were important components of life on Earth.
  5. Life has evolved throughout millions of years and extant (currently living) life is composed of a small portion of the enormous biodiversity observed throughout the history of life.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  1. Download and analyze data from large scientific databases, and interpret the graphical results to understand how historical events (such as extinctions) have affected biodiversity.
  2. By comparing results with those generated by other students, critically evaluate how animal life has evolved through geological time.
  3. Use data to formulate hypotheses for how mass extinctions can impact life, including, by extension, the current mass extinction.

Other skills goals for this activity

  1. Working in groups, use computers to search the Paleobiology Database to compile and download appropriate diversity data.
  2. Orally communicate interpretations with other students.

Description and Teaching Materials

The primary foci of the activity is on introducing students to geological time and fossil animal groups, and using them to understand the importance of mass extinctions in life's history. (By extension, students can hypothesize how a current "sixth mass extinction" could affect life.)

The activity is flexible and easily can be modified as a short within-class activity through a major class project incorporating group presentations.

For Parts I and III, student groups will need access to a computer (with internet access) and a printer.

Activity Description/Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 126kB Apr27 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Several of the questions in this activity are open-ended and intended to promote discussion. As a result, these questions do not have specific right or wrong answers. Also, because the Paleobiology Database is continuously updated with new fossil data, the answers for certain questions (such as the time intervals of first and last appearance in the fossil record) may change from one year to the next.

It is important that student group pick different animal groups. If using only a few groups, it will be worthwhile to assign groups so that representatives of Paleozoic and Mesozoic animal groups are covered. (Especially good choices include rugose corals, trilobites, strophomenate brachiopods, crinoids, ammonites, and plesiosaurs. The last page of the activity briefly lists the era each group existed.) Other groups could be chosen if students are especially interested; just make sure the group is extinct (or nearly so) and has a good fossil record during at least some time in the last 542 million years.

Parts I and II could be assigned as homework to spend more time on subsequent parts during class.

For a short (<50 minute) activity, consider the following strategy. Reduce Part I (Pick an extinct animal group) to just picking a group and then finding pictures online (such as through Google Images) to familiarize students with the animal groups. Then do Part II and III and skip part IV. If time allows, consider repeating the activity with a second group of animals, preferably one that lived at a very different time interval.

For a longer (two-class) activity, spend more time on external research on the individual animal groups (continuing outside of the class period) and have students present their results to the class, for approximately 5 minutes per group. Part IV encourages students to synthesize the classwide results for broader understanding of the importance of mass extinctions, and this works well as both a class "debriefing" discussion, an op-ed written for a public newspaper, or as a take-home essay.


Formative assessment methods include observing whether students are engaged and productive in the activity, and whether they have answered all questions. Simple open-ended questions ("What role do you think mass extinctions have played in the history of life on earth?" or "Do you think mass extinctions have been rare or common in earth's history?" or "Aside from dinosaurs, have any other major groups of animals gone extinct?") asked before and after the activity can gauge changing attitudes on mass extinction as a result of the activity.

Summative assessment involves confirming that objective answers (e.g., questions 4–13) are correct. Open-ended questions (e.g., questions 14, 18, and 26–27) should be evaluated to confirm that students are able to evaluate graphical evidence and to draw reasonable conclusions; these questions can also be assessed to confirm that student perceptions on the importance of mass extinctions have changed as a result of doing the activity.

References and Resources

Kolbert, E. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Henry Holt and Co, New York City.
- Offers a general introduction to mass extinctions, including discussion of causes of the "big 5", with a special focus on modern extinctions.