Instructor: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Office: Centreville 1216
Phone: x5-4084
Office Hours: TBD

Instructor: Dr. John W. Merck, Jr.
Office: Centreville 1218 (M, Tu) Geology 1119 (W, Th, F)
Phone: x5-2808, x5-4379
Office Hours: Tue 2:00 - 3:15 (Centreville 1218), Thu 2:00 - 3:00 (Geology 1119)





Course Organization:


Course Website:



Learning Outcomes:


Copyright: © 2017 John W. Merck, Jr. and Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. as to this syllabus and all lectures. Students are prohibited from copying and selling course materials, from selling lecture notes, and from being paid to take lecture notes without the express written permission of the faculty teaching this course.

Preliminary Schedule

DRAFT Lecture and exam schedule for 2017 - expect modifications!:

Part I: Introduction and Context

Date TopicReading
Week one:
  • Introduction to Vertebrate Paleontology

  • Week two:
  • Discussion: Phylogenetic Systematics
  • The Fossil Record and Vertebrate Taphonomy

  • Part II: Vertebrate Diversity and Evolution

    Week two, cont'd.:
  • Craniates within Metazoa

  • Week thee:
  • Weekly quizzes commence in discussion.
  • Discussion: Geologic Time and biostratigraphy
  • Body-Building - Vertebrate Development
  • Euconodonta and jawless craniates

  • Week four:
  • Discussion: Vertebrate skeletal anatomy
    Homework I assigned
  • The rise of Gnathostomata and "Placodermi"
  • Chondrichthyes and "Acanthodii"

  • Coates, Michael (2013) Sharks and the deep origin of modern jawed vertebrates The Palaeontological Association 57th Annual Meeting Podcast.

    Min Zhu, Xiaobo Yu, Per Erik Ahlberg, Brian Choo, Jing Lu, Tuo Qiao, Qingming Qu, Wenjin Zhao, Liantao Jia, Henning Blom & You'an Zhu (2013) The braincase and jaws of a Devonian "acanthodian" and modern gnathostome origins Nature 502, 188-193.

    Week five:
  • Discussion: Osteology and development of the vertebrate skull
    Homework I due
  • The rise of Osteichthyes and basal Actinopterygii
  • Teleostei

  • Week six:
  • Discussion: Midterm Exam I
  • Sarcopterygii and the origins of Tetrapoda
  • Temnospondyli, Reptiliomorpha, and troublesome Lissamphibia

  • Chapter 3: Handy Genes of Shubin, 2007. Your Inner Fish (From The Army and Navy Academy)

    Coates et al., 2008. Ever Since Owen: Changing Perspectived on the Early Evolution of Tetrapods (with excellent illustrations)

    Week seven:
  • Discussion: the development and evolution of the tetrapod limb
    Homework II assigned
  • Amniote origins and introducion to Synapsida
  • Non-mammalian Therapsida and the rise of mammals

  • Week eight:
  • Discussion: Mammalian odontology
    Homework II due
  • Mesozoic mammal diversity, origins of major groups, and marsupials
  • Placentalia I: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, and Euarchontoglires

  • Spring Break:

    Week nine:
  • Discussion: Biomechanics of swimming
  • Placentalia II: Introducing Laurasiatheria
  • Placentalia III: Euungulata

  • Week ten:
  • Discussion: Biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion
  • Introduction to Sauropsida
  • Lepidosauromorpha

  • Week eleven:
  • Discussion: Midterm Exam II
  • Euryapsida
  • Discussion: Last day to withdraw with a W
  • Introduction to Archosauromorpha

  • Week twelve:
  • Discussion:The Biomechanics of Flight
  • Archosauriformes
  • Introduction to Ornithodira and Pterosauria

  • Week thirteen:
  • Discussion: Fossil physiology I: lungs, hearts, and bones
  • Dinosauria origins and Ornithischia
  • Saurischia

  • Week fourteen:
  • Discussion: Fossil Physiology II: Evolutionary scenarios
  • Theropoda
  • Bird origins and Aves

  • Week fifteen
  • Discussion: Exam review
  • "God's noblest creation"
  • Diversity patterns, vertebrate history, macroevolutionary patterns

  • Finals week:
  • Thursday, May 18, 1:30 - 3:30 - Final Exam

  • * The instructors reserve the right to revise this schedule at their most trivial whim.

    Additional Reading

    There is no perfect textbook for GEOL431, so we don't make you fork for one, however serious students of vertebrate paleontology should be aware of the landmark textbooks in the field, past and present. Before you start grad school, definitely acquaint yourself with the following landmarks:

    Additional reading on specific topics is cited in many lecture notes.