PALE 201 - Palaeontology: Life of the Past

This course provides an introduction to the major events in the evolutionary history of planet from its formation 4.6 billion years ago to the last Ice Age. The emphasis is on the appearance and extinction of major groups of organisms, and the factors influencing these changes: geology, climate, and the changes in flora and fauna themselves.  The course will impart a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of geology, climate, and the organisms on Earth. This is not a remedial course.


Credits: 3


Hours: 45 (Lecture: 45)


GEOG 112 and one of: Biology 11, Life Sciences 11, BIOL 102, BIOL 127 or PALE 200, or permission of the Chair


Non-Course Prerequisites:




Course Content:
-What is a fossil; different types of fossilization processes; pseudofossils; “de-extinction.”
Radiometric and Relative Geologic Dating
-Introduction to radiometric dating; what fossils can be dated using radiometric dating; difference between carbon dating and radiometric dating; relative dating including basic geology and palaeontology concepts of superposition and lateral continuity; index fossils; facies fossils; Geologic Time Scale.
Vendian and Ediacaran Fauna
-Eons in the Geologic Time Scale; Proterozoic; Cryogenian Period; carbonate sediments; Ediacaran boundaries; palaeoenvironment of the Ediacaran Period; continental drift and positions in the Proterozoic; Ediacaran fossils and important fossil sites; protostomes versus deuterostomes.
Cambrian Explosion
-Animal classifications; Cambrian continent positions; important discoveries and fossil sites; Cambrian fossils; first evidence of animals on land from ichnology.
Ordovician Period
-Cambrian – Ordovician Extinction; appearances of major groups of marine organisms; evidence for the first appearance of jawed vertebrates; first appearance of land plants; Ordovician – Silurian Extinction.
Silurian Period
-Ordovician – Silurian Extinction (The Big 6) and impacts on major organisms; continental impacts on O – S Extinction Event (sea level, glaciations, volcanism); Euamerica continent building and Caledonian orogeny; beginning Silurian palaeoenvironment; Silurian palaeofauna; placoderm fishes; acanthodian fishes; first appearance of sharks; first bony fishes; our fishy anatomy; first terrestrial millipedes, centipedes, spider-like arachnids and scorpions; oldest land plants with vascular tissues; hemichordates.
Devonian Period
-Continental drift (Gondwana and Euamerica) and the early days of the supercontinent Pangea; first appearance of Ammonoidea and ammonite anatomy; Devonian marine palaeofauna (placoderms, eurypterids, etc.); lobe-finned versus ray-finned fishes and connection to terrestrial vertebrates; terrestrial plants and rise of mosses, clubmoss, scale-trees; impact of terrestrial plants on terrestrial ecosystems; rise of the tetrapods, Tikaalik, and transition from fins to limbs; implications of terrestrial vertebrate ichnofossils, first amphibians.
Carboniferous Period
-Late Devonian Extinction Event (The Big 6) and plate tectonics; Mississipian and Pennsylvanian subperiods; Carboniferous marine palaeofauna; “Romer’s Gap” and new fossil discoveries; impacts of atmospheric oxygen levels on life; true spiders; first Reptiliomorpha; evolution of the amniotic egg; first true reptiles; anatomy of reptilian skulls (anapsid, diapsid, synapsid); terrestrial paleoflora; Carboniferous primitive amphibians; Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse.
Permian Period
-Formation of supercontinent Pangea and global climatic impacts; early Permian marine life; plants and evolution of spores versus seeds; first true seed plants (gymnosperms); terrestrial invertebrates; appearance of modern amphibians (frogs and salamanders); first terrestrial vertebrate herbivores; diversification of synapsids; first appearance of Archosauriformes; “The Great Dying” (a.k.a. Permian – Triassic Extinction Event, The Big 6); possible causes of the Great Dying.
Triassic Period
-“The Day After” fauna: recovery from the Great Dying; break-up of Pangea; global palaeoclimate of the Early Triassic; evolution of swimming reptiles; freshwater marine palaeoecosystems; recovery of terrestrial palaeodiversity after the Great Dying; evolution of Mammaliformes and anatomy; first true lizards; evolution of Archosauria.
-continued breakup of Pangea; evolution and diversification of Archosauria; crurotarsal versus mesotarsal ankle joints; evolution and life history of Pterosauria (flying reptiles); evolution of Dinosauria and Triassic dinosaurs; anatomy of a dinosaur; Triassic – Jurassic extinctions.
Jurassic Period
-Climate and global geography of the Earth after the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction; continents and palaeoclimate of the Early Jurassic; Jurassic marine invertebrate and vertebrate palaeofauna; evolution of turtles; diversification of gymnosperms; evolution of earliest eutherian/placental mammals.
-Middle Jurassic continents and palaeoclimate; formation of Gondwana (south) and Laurasia (north) continents; formation of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico; Early Jurassic – Middle Jurassic boundary; evolution and diversity of Early Jurassic archosaurs; evolution and diversity of Middle Jurassic archosaurs; evolution of major groups of dinosaurs (brachiosaurs, megalosaurs, ornithopods); marine vertebrates.
-Late Jurassic continents and palaeoclimate; famous Jurassic localities; first appearance of birds; appearance of many famous dinosaurs; marine vertebrates; Jurassic – Cretaceous boundary;
Cretaceous Period
-Early Cretaceous continents and palaeoclimate; the Early Cretaceous boundary and famous localities; evolution of angiosperms (flowering plants); occurrences of different dinosaur groups on different continents (Gondwana dinosaurs versus Laurasia dinosaurs).
-Late Cretaceous continents; Western Intercontinental Seaway; Gondwana versus Laurasia dinosaurs; extreme latitude palaeofaunas (Antarctic and Arctic); changes in marine vertebrates and invertebrates; palaeoclimate changes and the end of the Cretaceous.
Evolution of Birds
-Features of a bird; Archaeopteryx and the evolution of birds; evolution of flight in birds (“ground up” versus “tree down”); the link between birds and dinosaurs; history of the science of bird evolution; important bird-dinosaur fossils; feather fossils and colour; feathers in archosaurs.
Vertebrate Ichnology: Tracks and Traces
-Body fossils versus ichnofossils; what is an ichnofossil; footprint preservation; sediments and footprints; foot anatomy versus footprint shape; limb anatomy; linking tracks to trackmakers; footprints and behavior.
The K – Pg Extinction and the Palaeogene Period
-Possible causes of the end-Cretaceous extinction (The Big 6); did some dinosaurs survive?; palaeoclimate leading up to the extinction; recovery flora and fauna of the Palaeogene Period; Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum; Palaeocene climate; end Eocene extinction; Eocene herbivore community versus Oligocene herbivorous community; Palaeogene-Neogene boundary.
Neogene Period
-Palaeoclimate changes and continents of the Neogene; palaeoflora and palaeofauna changes that brought about many modern animal and plant groups; early appearance of hominids.
Quaternary Period
-Introduction to Milankovitch Cycles and Quaternary glaciations; start of the Quaternary; continents and palaeoclimate; appearance and disappearance of major “Ice Age” flora and fauna; Great Lakes.
The Anthropocene and The Next Major Extinction Event
-proposal of the Anthropocene as an epoch of the Quaternary; the “official” start of the Anthropocene; climate change and recent extinctions (are we in the middle of the next major extinction event?); climate change and major animal groups; impacts of human activity on biodiversity and climate.


Learning Outcomes: Students will be introduced to major changes of life on Earth, including major events in climate, geology, continental drift, and appearances and extinctions of major clades of plants and animals. More specifically, students will be expected to:
- describe the Periods of the Geologic Time Scale (relative time scale)
- describe the major dates in Geologic Time Scale (absolute time scale)
- distinguish between absolute and relative dating
- distinguish between facies and index fossils
- describe major types of fossil and fossilization
- describe the forces that resulted in the evolution and extinction of major clades, and the timing of these events
- describe the connections between geology, geography, climate, palaeoflora and palaeofauna
- produce a sound research paper that demonstrates clarity, focus, organization.


Grading System:  Letter Grades


Passing Grade:  A minimum grade of D (50%) must be achieved in the invigilated portions of the course, and in the course overall, in order to pass the course.


Textbooks are subject to change. Please contact the bookstore at your local campus for current book lists.