Instructor: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Office: Geology 4106
Phone: x5-4084
Office Hours: Wed 10 - 11:30 am

Instructor: Dr. John W. Merck, Jr.
Office: Centreville 1218 (M, Tu) Geology 1119 (W, Th, F)
Phone: x5-4379
Office Hours: Thu 2:00 - 4:00 (via Zoom) or by appointment. Schedule appointment in advance in any event.





Course Organization:


Course Website:



Learning Outcomes:


Preliminary Lecture and exam schedule for 2021

Part I: Introduction and Context

Date TopicReading
Week one (Jan. 25-29):
  • Discussion: Introduction, course goals, and review (TH)
  • The Fossil Record and Vertebrate Taphonomy (JM)
  • Vertebrates Through Time (TH)

  • Reading: Bonnan, Chaps. 1-2
    Week two (Feb. 1-5):
  • 2/5 - End of schedule adjustment.
  • Discussion: Extinctions and Extinction Events (TH)

  • Part II: Vertebrate Diversity and Evolution

    Week two, cont'd.:
  • Vertebrates within Metazoa (JM)
  • Body-Building - Vertebrate Development (JM)

  • Reading: Bonnan, Chap. 3
    Week three (Feb. 8-12):
  • Discussion: Phylogenetic Systematics (TH)
    • Quiz I
    • Homework I (Geologic Time & Phylogenetics) assigned
  • Fossil and jawless vertebrates (JM)
  • The rise of Gnathostomata and "Placodermi" (JM)

  • Reading: Bonnan, Chaps. 4
    Week four (Feb. 15-19):
  • Discussion: Vertebrate skeletal anatomy I - Introducing the skull (JM)
  • Eugnathostomata, Chondrichthyes, and "spiny sharks" (JM)
  • The rise of Osteichthyes and basal Actinopterygii (JM)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 6

    Bonnan, Chap. 7

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

    Zhu, et al. (2013) The braincase and jaws of a Devonian "acanthodian" and modern gnathostome origins Nature 502, 188-193.

    Week five (Feb. 21-26):
  • Discussion: Vertebrate skeletal anatomy II - The axial skeleton(JM)
    • Quiz II
  • Neopterygii (JM)
  • Sarcopterygii (JM)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 7

    Bonnan, Chap. 8

    Week six (Mar. 1-5):
  • Discussion: Vertebrate skeletal anatomy III - The appendicular skeleton (JM)
  • The tetrapod stem: Sarcopterygians become "digitized" (JM)
  • Crown Tetrapoda (JM)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chap. 9

    Bonnan, Chap. 10-11

    Bonnan, Chap. 11

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

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

    Week seven (Mar. 8-12):
  • Discussion: the development and evolution of the tetrapod limb (JM)
    • Midterm Exam I
  • Amniote origins and Introduction to Synapsida (TH)
  • Non-mammalian Therapsida and the Rise of Mammals (TH)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chaps. 12, 20

    Bonnan, Chap. 20

    Spring Break Mar. 14-21
    Week eight (Mar. 22-26):
  • Discussion: The Amniote Skull (TH)
  • Mesozoic Mammal Diversity; Diversification of Crown-Mammals; Marsupialia (TH)
  • Placentalia I: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, and Euarchontoglires (TH)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chap. 19

    Bonnan, Chap. 21

    Week nine (Mar. 29- Apr. 2):
  • Discussion: Synapsid Odontology (TH)
    • Quiz III
    • Homework III (Odontology) due
  • Placentalia II: Introducing Laurasiatheria (TH)
  • Placentalia III: Euungulata (TH)

  • Week ten (Apr. 5-9):
  • Discussion:Biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion (TH)
  • Introduction to Sauropsida (JM)
  • Lepidosauromorpha (JM)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chaps. 13-14
    Bonnan, Chaps. 14-15
    Week eleven (Apr. 12-16):
  • Discussion: Biomechanics of aquatic locomotion (JM)
    • Midterm Exam II;
    • Last day to withdraw with a W?????
  • Euryapsida (JM)
  • Introduction to Archosauromorpha (JM)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 15

    Week twelve (Apr. 19-23):
  • Discussion: TBD (??)
  • Archosauriformes through Pseudosuchia (TH)
  • Introduction to Crocodylomorpha (TH)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chaps. 16-17

    Wilberg, et al. 2019. Evolutionary structure and timing of major habitat shifts in Crocodylomorpha. Scientific Reports 9: 514 (2019). doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-36795-1

    Week thirteen (Apr. 26-30):
  • Discussion: The Biomechanics of Flight (JM)
    • Quiz IV
    • Homework IV (Locomotion) assigned
  • Introduction to Ornithodira; Pterosauria (TH)
  • Dinosauria Origins; Ornithischia (TH)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 18

    Witton, M.P. 2017. Pterosaurs in Mesozoic food webs: a review of fossil evidence. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 455: 7-23. doi: 10.1144.SP455.3

    Benson, R.B.J. 2018. Dinosaur macroevolution and macroecology. Annual Reviews of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 49:379-408. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110617-062231

    Week fourteen (May 3-7):
  • Discussion: Thermal Metabolism of Fossil Vertebrates (TH)
    • Homework IV due
  • Saurischia (TH)
  • Theropoda II (including Aves) (TH)

  • Week fifteen (May 10-14):
  • 10:59 PM, 5/11/21 Deadline to opt for PF grading or to withdraw with a W.
  • Discussion: Outstanding Problems in Vertebrate Paleontology (TH)
    • Quiz V
  • "God's noblest creation"; Let's Go Terps! (JM)

  • Finals week:
  • TBD - 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, although Bonnan 2016 provides a good background to the information that vertebrate paleontologists work with. Serious students of vertebrate paleontology, however, 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.

    PDF version of the Syllabus and Lecture schedule available on ELMS Latest revision: 15 January 2021