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Unit information: Macroevolution in 2020/21

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Macroevolution
Unit code EASC30066
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1B (weeks 7 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Mike Benton
Open unit status Not open

Mandatory units in years 1 and 2 of a degree programme in Environmental Geoscience, Geology or Palaeontology and Evolution at Bristol.

There are no pre-requisites for MSc Palaeobiology students



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 on the broad patterns of the history of life
  • 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 and macroecology

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

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

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

Coursework 100%


  • a series of 5 practical exercises using programs in R


  • a write-up of the results in the form of a Biology Letters paper (up to 1500 words)

Assessment is based on proficiency with R, evidence of understanding macroevolutionary meaning of the results, and presentation quality.

Reading and References


  • Benton, M.J. and Harper, D.A.T., (2019) Introduction to Paleobiology & the Fossil Record, 2nd Edition, Wiley

Further reading

  • Briggs, D. E. G. and Crowther, P. R., (2001) Palaeobiology II, Blackwells, Oxford
  • Stanley, S. M. (2014) Earth system history, 4th edition. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco