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Unit information: Biomechanics and Functional Morphology in 2015/16

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Unit name Biomechanics and Functional Morphology
Unit code EASCM0024
Credit points 10
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1B (weeks 7 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Rayfield
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

Why are fossil animals shaped in a particular way? How does this relate to their behaviour? In this unit we will examine how biomechanical techniques and inference from living animals shape our understanding of form and function in fossils. Firstly, students will be introduced to biomechanical principles and techniques, and the issues of adaptation and constraint, before considering their application to problems of fossil animal function. Concepts of basic structural mechanics will be introduced along with an overview of the biology and functional morphology of the musculoskeletal system, including shape and scaling aspects. The practical application of biomechanics to fossil function will then be considered, focusing on a variety of topics such as feeding and cranial evolution (early tetrapods, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, mammals), locomotion on land (dinosaurs, hominids and arthropods), in water (plesiosaurs) and air (insects, pterosaurs, birds), physiology (dinosaurian and mammalian endothermy) and fighting and display structures.

The unit aims to:

  • provide an understanding of the interplay between adaptation and constraint in the form and functional morphology of fossils.
  • provide an overview of basic mechanical principles relating to organic structures.
  • review and then discuss the applicability of biomechanical techniques in the reconstruction of function in fossils.
  • present a series of examples of how biomechanics and inferences from living animals has contributed to our understanding of form and function in extinct animals, in particular focusing on feeding, locomotion, physiology and social interaction in fossils.

Intended Learning Outcomes

On successful completion students will be able to:

  • Understand the relationship between form and function in fossils and appreciate why animals may or may not be optimally adapted to particular functions.
  • Comprehend the processes by which function can be reconstructed in fossil animals, and evaluate the relative effectiveness of such methods.
  • Demonstrate competence in the application of basic biomechanical techniques to functional hypotheses in fossils.
  • Possess a broad understanding of how biomechanics has contributed to our understanding of functional evolution throughout the animal kingdom.

Teaching Information

Lectures and practicals

Assessment Information

There is no formal exam. Instead the unit is assessed through (A) an extended essay and (B) two assessed practicals.

A. The 2000-word extended essay will comprise 50% of the total unit mark. The deadline for submission is the end of week 12.

Assessment for the extended essay will be completed in accordance with the University Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes, available online at

B. Two out of the five practical classes will also be assessed; each assessed practical will contribute 25% to the total unit mark. Answers will be made available for self-reflection and ongoing progression.

Reading and References

  • McGowan, C. 1999. A practical guide to vertebrate mechanics. 301pp. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Biewener, A. A. 2003. Animal Locomotion. 281pp. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Thomason, J. J. ed. Functional morphology in vertebrate palaeontology. 277pp. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Liem, K. F., Bemis, W. E., Walker, W. F., & Grande, L. 2001. Functional anatomy of the vertebrates. 3rd ed. 703pp. Harcourt, Philadelphia.
  • Vogel, S. (2013) Comparative Biomechanics, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton.