The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre SouthamptonUndergraduate study

SOES3049 Vertebrate Palaeobiology: Phylogenetics and Evolution

Module Overview

To familiarise students with the basics of broad-scale vertebrate evolution.

Aims and Objectives

To familiarise students with the basics of broad-scale vertebrate evolution, encompassing fish, amphibians, reptiles (including archosaurs - dinosaurs, pterosaurs and birds) and mammals. This course will build on current understanding of the evolutionary (=phylogenetic) relationships of vertebrates and will develop recent research questions in, particularly, archosaur systematics, palaeobiology and marine fossil vertebrates. A theme of this course will be quantitative approaches to tree-building: phylogenetic methods and the analysis of character data (both morphological and molecular). Students will receive an overview of the vertebrate fossil record, current consensus on (and debates about) the interrelationships of living vertebrates and the theoretical and practical basis of phylogenetic analysis.

At the end of the module students will:

  • Understand the basic shape of vertbrate evolution and the kinds of data (fossils, morphology, molecules) used to hypothesise and quantify tree shapes;
  • Gain a broad knowledge of the fossil record of vertebrates, inherent biases and the interrelationships of the key lineages;
  • Understand how phylogenetic trees are constructed, tested and falsified and the problems inherent to the inclusion of fossil taxa;
  • Gain an understanding of the broad fossil record, anatomy and palaeobiology of the major lineages of fossil vertebrates, with emphasis on specific examples of marine vertebrates;
  • Understand how the fossil record of vertebrates has been instrumental in shaping current consensus on the relationships of living animals.

Key Skills Acquired:

  • Analysis of the fossil record and understanding of biases;
  • Phylogenetic approaches, character coding and quantitative tree-building;
  • Statistical analysis of character data (i.e., how to code a phylogenetic matrix);
  • Written communication / presentation skills;
  • Oral and visual presentation skills (esp. poster and seminar);
  • Information retrieval skills (library/web);
  • Report writing;
  • Teamwork.



1. Course outline, aims and learning outcomes
2. The shape of vertebrate evolution: what do we know?
3. Basics of phylogenetic analysis, missing data and the fossil record
4. The Origin of Vertebrates: progress and debates
5. Fossil jawless fishes and the radiation of Chondrichthyes
6. Fish form and function: adaptations for hydrodynamics
7. The origin of amphibians and early diversification on land
8. Amphibian evolution and diversity
9. Amphibian life-History and ecology
10. Basal ‘Reptiles' and the diversification of Chelonia
11. The split in vertebrate evolution: diapsids and synapsids
12. Early diapsid diversity and phylogeny
13. Introduction to archosaurs
14. Archosaur evolution: crocodiles and pterosaurs
15. The early diversification of dinosaurs
16. Dinosaurs 1: Ornithischia
17. Dinosaurs 2: Saurischia (sauropods)
18. Dinosaurs 3: Saurischia (basal theropods, phylogenetic relationships)
19. The radiation of theropod dinosaurs
20. Origin of birds
21. Diversity and phylogeny of Aves
22. The reptile-mammal transition: what happened at the K-Pg boundary?
23. Mammalian phylogeny
24. Summary and revisions of key topics


Learning and Teaching

Study time allocation

Contact hours:60
Private study hours:90
Total study time: 150 hours

Teaching and learning methods

The basis of this course is a series of 24 lectures. Lectures will cover course material in a general way, and will provide numerous suggestions for further reading and student self-learning, in particular via pointers to the primary literature.

Resources and reading list

A small budget will be required for the costs of printing student posters.

Online lecture notes, presentation files and primary literature will be presented to students. Background reading and self-learning will be required.

Recommended Text Books:
Michael J. Benton (2004). Vertebrate Palaeontology, 3rd Edition ISBN: 978-0-632-05637-8. Paperback, 472 pages. October 2004, Wiley-Blackwell.
John Z. Young (1962). The Life of Vertebrates. Oxford University Press (Available Free Online).


Assessment methods

Poster presentation    20%
Practical reports  30%
Examination   50%

Share this module Facebook Google+ Twitter Weibo

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.