Instructor: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Office: Geology 4106BR> 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: x5-2808, x5-4379
Office Hours: Thu 2:00 - 4:00 (Geology 1119)





Course Organization:


Course Website:



Learning Outcomes:


Preliminary Schedule

DRAFT Lecture and exam schedule for 2019 - expect whimsical modifications!

Part I: Introduction and Context

Date TopicReading
Week one (Jan. 28-Feb. 1):
  • Discussion: Introduction and review (JM)
  • Introduction to Vertebrate Paleontology (TH, presented by JM)
  • The Fossil Record and Vertebrate Taphonomy (JM)

  • Reading: Bonnan, Chaps. 1-2
    Week two (Feb. 4-8):
  • Discussion: Phylogenetic Systematics (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. 11-15):
  • Discussion: Vertebrate skeletal anatomy Quiz I (JM)
    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. 18-22):
  • Discussion: Osteology and development of the vertebrate skull - I (JM)
    Homework I due
  • 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. 25-Mar. 1):
  • Discussion: Osteology and development of the vertebrate skull - II Quiz II (TH)
    Homework II (Basics of Osteology) assigned
  • Neopterygii (JM)
  • Sarcopterygii (JM)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 7

    Bonnan, Chap. 8

    Week six (Mar. 4-8):
  • Discussion: the development and evolution of the tetrapod limb (JM)
    Homework II due
  • 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. 11-15):
  • Discussion: 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.18-22

    Week eight (Mar. 26-29):
  • Discussion: Mammalian Odontology (TH)
    Homework III (Odontology) assigned
  • Mesozoic Mammal Diversity; Diversification of Crown-Mammals; Marsupialia (TH)
  • Placentalia I: Afrotheria, Xenarthra, and Euarchontoglires (TH)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chap. 19

    Bonnan, Chap. 21

    Spring Break Mar.18-22

    Week nine (Apr. 1-5):
  • Discussion: Biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion Quiz III (TH)
    Homework III (Odontology) due
  • Placentalia II: Introducing Laurasiatheria (TH)
  • Placentalia III: Euungulata (TH)

  • Week ten (Apr. 8-12):
  • Discussion: Biomechanics of swimming (JM)
  • Introduction to Sauropsida (JM)
  • Lepidosauromorpha (JM)

  • Reading:
    Bonnan, Chaps. 13-14
    Bonnan, Chaps. 14-15
    Week eleven (Apr. 15-19):
  • Discussion: Midterm Exam II; Last day to withdraw with a W
  • Euryapsida (JM)
  • Introduction to Archosauromorpha (JM)

  • Reading:

    Bonnan, Chap. 15

    Week twelve (Apr. 22-26):
  • Discussion:The Amniote Skull (TH)
  • 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. 29-May 3):
  • Discussion:The Biomechanics of Flight Quiz IV(JM)
    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 6-10):
  • Discussion: Vertebrate History (TH)
    Homework IV due
  • Saurischia (TH)
  • Theropoda II (including Aves) (TH)

  • Week fifteen (May 13-14):
  • Discussion: Exam review Quiz V
  • "God's noblest creation"; Let's Go Terps! (JM)

  • Finals week:
  • May 21 1:30-3:30 pm - 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: 24 January 2019