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Unit information: Advanced Vertebrate Palaeobiology and Biomechanics in 2021/22

Unit name Advanced Vertebrate Palaeobiology and Biomechanics
Unit code EASCM0055
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Rayfield
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

This unit begins by outlining the evolution of vertebrates from basal fish-like creatures to humans. An emphasis will be given to anatomy and phylogeny, with descriptions of key groups of fishes, amphibians, reptiles (especially dinosaurs), birds and mammals. Students will then study what we can learn from the evolution of vertebrate form. For example, why are fossil animals shaped in a particular way? How does this relate to their behaviour? We will examine how biomechanical techniques and inference from living animals shape our understanding of form and function in fossils. 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 unit aims to:

  • provide students with an understanding of the diversity, evolution, and relationships of vertebrates, and to cover some current debates concerning their behaviour, biology, and evolution.
  • 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 and then review 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 vertebrate evolution, in particular focusing on feeding, locomotion, physiology and social interaction in fossils.

Intended Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the unit you will be able to:

  • Describe and define the basic features of osteology of key vertebrate skeletons.
  • Know the major stages in vertebrate evolution and the significance of current debates about major steps in phylogeny and evolutionary development.
  • Discuss and critically analyse evidence concerning the origin, evolution, and extinction of vertebrates.
  • Comprehend the relationship between form and function in fossils and how biomechanics has contributed to our understanding of functional evolution throughout the animal kingdom.
  • Comprehend the processes by which function can be reconstructed in fossil animals, evaluate the relative effectiveness of such methods and
  • Demonstrate competence in the application of basic biomechanical techniques to functional hypotheses in fossils.

Teaching Information

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials and, if subsequently possible, synchronous face-to-face lectures
  • synchronous office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative activities and exercises
  • guided, structured reading
  • practical work in the laboratory
  • poster session

Students who either begin or continue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete laboratory work, or alternative activities, in person, either during the academic year 2020/21 or subsequently, in order to meet the intended learning outcomes for the unit, prepare them for subsequent units or to satisfy accreditation requirements.

Assessment Information

Summative assessment: the exam will comprise a mix of short answer, calculation and essay-style question types.

Formative assessment: poster session , feedback on practical classes

Poster session - students will choose a relevant scientific question, as agreed by staff, then research and prepare a scientific poster. The poster will be displayed in a conference-style poster session with staff and peers asking questions. Assessment will be based on visual presentation skills and quality of research; marks for each component will be equally weighted.

Feedback, and model answers where appropriate, will be provided at the end of each practical class. Students will be encouraged to present their findings during classes when data collection forms part of the exercise.


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. EASCM0055).

How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.