GEOL 331/BSCI 333 Principles of Paleontology

Fall Semester 2020

Death assemblage of the Paleogene oreodont Miniochoerus at the Tate Geological Museum at Casper College

DISCUSSION: Zoom 9:30-10:45 am Eastern Time Tu
LAB: Geology Building (237 GEO) 2106 & 2107 2:00-5:00 pm Th

Instructors: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Room: Geology Building (237 GEO) 4106
Office Hours (REVISED): Thurs 11:30 am-1 pm, or by appointment
Phone: (301) 405-4084, Email:

Dr. John W. Merck, Jr.
Room: Geology Building (237 GEO) 1119
Office Hours: Thurs 12-2 pm, or by appointment
Phone: (301) 405-4379, Email:


NOTE: It is your responsibility as a student to completely read through and understand this syllabus. If you have questions about it, please contact Drs. Holtz or Merck. You will be held responsible for following all requirements of this syllabus.

Course Description: Life of the geologic past as revealed by the fossil record. Students will examine how the physical remains of organisms and traces of their behavior in incorporated into the geologic record. They will examine how paleontologists to determine geologic ages and ancient environments; evolutionary history and extinctions; and the biology and behavior of extinct organisms.

Learning Outcomes: By the end of the semester, every student should be able to:

Themes: This course examines how scientists study the age, environments, evolution, origin, biology, behavior, and extinction of fossil organisms. Over this time, we will explore several big themes:

Textbook: Donald R. Prothero. 2013. Bringing Fossils to Life. 3rd Edition. Columbia University Press. 671 pp. ISBN 978-0891158930.

Course Organization: Lectures will be provided as Panopto recordings on ELMS. Two lectures (each divided into smaller segments) will be due each week.

Discussion will be held weekly on Zoom at 9:30-10:45 am Tu (Eastern time)

1 lab meeting per week. (NOTE: if the University undergoes another shift to online-only teaching, the labs will become entirely virtual)

Item Percentage
Midterm Exam I 15%
Midterm Exam II 15%
Final Exam 15%
Labs 25%
Lab Quizzes 10%
Homework 10%
Student-Generated Questions 5%
Discussion Participation 5%

Grade Scale: The numbers given represent the thresholds that must be passed in order to reach that grade (for example, A+ is 97.000... and any number greater). There is no rounding for letter grades; the thresholds must be passed. F is any grade below D-. Thresholds: 97, A+; 93, A; 90, A-; 87, B+; 83, B; 80, B-; 77, C+; 73, C; 70, C-; 67, D+; 63, D; 60, D-; < 60, F.

The Final Grade is the algebraic sum based on the numerical grades.

Midterm Exams (15%): Two online exams on September 30-October 2 and October 28-30, respectively. For each of these there will be a section comprised of true/false, matching, multiple choice, and similar type questions, as well as a few short answer questions and an essay. These exams are open-note but timed, and are subject to the University's Honor Pledge; you may not seek help from students or other people in doing these. If you encounter a technical problem, please contact ELMS@umd.edus for help (and Dr. Holtz so that he is aware of your situation.)

Final Exam (15%): Another online final exam, cumulative for the entire course but focuses on the material since the second midterm. Format is similar to the mid-term exams. The exam will be available DECEMBER 16-18.

Labs (25% total): Essentially every week there will be a lab. Labs are due the week after they are assigned, allowing students time to examine specimens over the course of the week if they wish. These will be turned in as ELMS quizzes.

Lab Quizzes (10% total): In order to evaluate your understanding of the anatomy and identity of fossil material, a series of lab quizzes starting in the third week of the course. These will be done on ELMS and will be due on ELMS prior to the beginning of lab time. The lowest lab quiz grade will be automatically dropped.

Homework (10% total): Throughout the course a set of homework projects are assigned to examine your knowledge of the lecture material.

Student-Generated Questions (5%): Every week we will ask you to provide a question, its answer (and in the case of a matching or multiple-choice question, additional incorrect options) from each of the two lectures presented the next week. Creating your own question is an effective way of better understanding the material. These questions will be made available to all. A selection of these will be used in the midterm and final exams.

Discussion Participation (5%): Every week we will discuss the lectures from the previous week. All students are expected to attend every synchronous meeting and be an active participant when appropriate. In some classes, there may be directed interactive activities or discussions. Some meetings will involve Breakout Rooms. A default grade of 5 will be given for every meeting a student attends. They may be awarded up to 2 more points as extra credit for particularly helpful or effective participation in the meeting. Students who are present for a discussion section but are non-participants or are disruptive may be docked up to 2 and 4 points (respectively) at the instructors' discretion.


Expectations and Policies

Expectations & Attendance:
Attendance in the Zoom discussion meetings is required.

Attendance in laboratory is required. Prior to each lab there will be instruction about aspects of that day's material provided on Panopto and lab quizzes evaluating previous weeks' material on ELMS. The specimens will often be accessible during the week if you wish to revisit them before turning in your assignment; however, due to loss of specimens in the past some individual fossils might only be made available during lab time.

NOTE: Attendance means more than mere presence: it means "paying attention". Please take out your ear buds and refrain from texting/web-browsing/doing homework/etc. in class and in lab.

Attendance in laboratory is required. At the beginning of each lab there will be instruction about aspects of that day's material and lab quizzes evaluating previous weeks' material. The specimens will often be accessible during the week if you wish to revisit them before turning in your assignment; however, due to loss of specimens in the past some individual fossils might only be made available during lab time.

Communication in this course will primarily be by means of the ELMS Inbox email system. Even given its online nature, there is the possibility that due to unusual inclement weather or other unexpected emergencies, the University may close. Please consult the University main webpage or call 301-405-7669 (SNOW) to confirm such cancellations. Dr. Holtz will contact students via ELMS in order to inform them concerning delays of due dates for projects to be handed in or for exams: typically these will be shifted until the next available class date.

General Policies:
The University has provided a page on Academic policies here. Each student is responsible for reviewing this page with regards to issues of Academic Integrity; the Code of Student Conduct; Sexual Misconduct; Discrimination; Accessibility; Attendance, Absences, or Missed Assignments; Student Rights Regarding Undergraduate Courses; Official UMD Communication; Mid-Term Grades; Complaints About Course Final Grades; Copyright and Intellectual Property; Final Exams and Course Evaluations; and Campus Resources. For specifics with regards to this course, see the following:

Laptop/Tablet/Smartphone Use:
Given the reliance on technology this semester, please make certain that you have access to appropriate hardware, software, and Internet connections. If you are concerned about your ability to connect remotely for this course, please consult the following information about solutions provided by the Division of Information Technology:

NOTE: As part of the nature of the course, there will be a lot of memorization (less than a foreign language class, but more than that found in more mathematically-oriented introductory science classes). This will include lots of anatomical, geological, and paleontological terms, as well as evolutionary and temporal relationships. If you have difficulty memorizing, this may not be the class for you. Also, if there are words or concepts with which you are not familiar, feel free to ask Drs. Holtz or Merck (in discussion, at office hours, over email, etc.) for an explanation or clarification.

Copyright © 2020 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. & John W. Merck, Jr. as to this syllabus, all lectures, and all written material provided in this course. 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 professor teaching this course. Violations of this prohibition will be treated as violations of the University Honors Code and reported and dealt with accordingly.

  • Lecture Notes

    For a formatted printable copy of the complete syllabus, click here.

    Death assemblage of the Ordovician trilobite Dikelokephalina