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Unit information: Evolution of the Biosphere in 2016/17

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Unit name Evolution of the Biosphere
Unit code EASC30008
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1A (weeks 1 - 6)
Unit director Professor. Mike Benton
Open unit status Not open

Successful completion of years 1 and 2 of either the Environmental Geoscience or the Geology degree programme curriculum.



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

This unit focuses on macroevolution, the large patterns of evolution of life on Earth. It is an interdisciplinary unit, drawing material from palaeontology, stratigraphy, sedimentology and evolution. The focus is on tackling deep-time questions concerning global change and the origins of biodiversity. A clear focus is given to current debates and the evidence on either side of debated issues, so students can read widely in the current literature and understand the nature of different kinds of evidence and their meaning. Clear links are made to current environmental crises.

The whole unit is presented in terms of numerical tests, and the practical series is a focused course in R, covering introduction to the basics of R programming, producing graphs, and using a range of current techniques to explore rates and models of evolution, diversity, palaeobiogeography, and sudden events.

The main aims are:

  • to understand changing views on the history of the biosphere
  • to summarise current methods of dating and sequencing rocks
  • to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the rock and fossil records
  • to consider different models for the diversification of life
  • to understand the contributions of palaeontological data to modern evolutionary theory
  • to evaluate the role of catastrophes in earth history
  • to apply numerical methods in macroevolution

Intended Learning Outcomes

On completion, you should be able to:

  • analyse and apply appropriate numerical methods to macroevolutionary problems
  • document the major stages in the history of life and of the Earth, and present models for diversification of life
  • Debate the nature and causes of the major mass extinction events, and how they are studied
  • deduce links from longer-term processes to current human-induced crises on the earth
  • calculate rates of evolution, estimate models of evolution, compare time series, and apply other numerical methods in macroevolution
  • debate evidence for and against gaps in the rock and fossil records

Teaching Information

Lectures and practicals

Assessment Information

Examination (70%) and continuous assessment of coursework (30%)

Reading and References

There is no single recommended text for the course. Students should refer to the following for background information on most of the topics covered:

  • Benton, M.J. and Harper, D.A.T., (2009) Introduction to Paleobiology & the Fossil Record, Wiley-Blackwell;
  • Briggs, D. E. G. and Crowther, P. R., (2001) Palaeobiology II, Blackwells, Oxford;
  • Stanley, S. M. (2008) Earth system history, 3rd edition. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco.