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University of Alberta

Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution

University of Alberta via Coursera


Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution is a four-lesson course teaching a comprehensive overview of the origin of vertebrates. Students will explore the diversity of Palaeozoic lineages within a phylogenetic and evolutionary framework. This course examines the evolution of major vertebrate novelties including the origin of fins, jaws, and tetrapod limbs. Students also explore key Canadian fossil localities, including the Burgess Shale (British Columbia), Miguasha (Quebec), and Man On The Hill (Northwest Territories). Watch a preview of the course here:


  • The Phanerozoic Begins
    • In this lesson we take you back to the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon to learn what it truly means to have backbone, as we encounter the key anatomical features of vertebrates and their closest chordate relatives. We’ll also introduce the language of evolution – phylogenetics – as we examine some of the contenders for the title of ‘The Earliest Vertebrate’, and give you a crash course in sedimentology, so you can begin to piece together the spectacular environments that were home to our early aquatic ancestors. Just a quick note before you get started: 'Palaios' is the Greek word for 'ancient', so palaeontology or paleontology is the study of ancient life. Both spellings are correct, with palaeontology used in Britain, and paleontology more common in the US.
  • Learning to Swim
    • The old problem of the comparative anatomist was exactly how to compare two animals that appeared, at first glance, to look nothing alike. How, do you compare cows and lobsters? Well, in this lesson you’ll not only learn how to compare crustaceans and cattle, but you’ll also quickly learn that there’s more to a vertebrate than just a backbone as we delve into basic vertebrate anatomy. We’ll cover all the need-to-know anatomical terms and directions, as well as specialist features like the lateral line system, which not only helped early fish avoid predation, but is also the main reason why you find it very difficult to catch fish with your bare hands today! We will also explore the immense diversity of the jawless vertebrates including the tenacious Cyclostomata, the elusive Conodonta, and, long before Ankylosaurus, a group of heavily armoured jawless fishes – the ostracoderms.
  • Learning to Bite
    • The Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian Periods were times of great continental, oceanic and climactic change that brought about the Earth’s first mass extinction events. With environmental catastrophes opening up new ecological niches, a trait evolved in early vertebrates that would prove so successful that over 99% of modern vertebrates still retain it: jaws. In this lesson we will try to understand the geographical and temporal background of early vertebrate diversity, as well as the impact and origin of the evolution of jaws on vertebrate life. Introducing huge predators such as Dunkleosteus along the way, we’ll explore the incredible diversity of the Gnathostoma (the jawed fishes), mainly from fossils known from the spectacular Late Devonian site of Miguasha in Quebec. So get ready for a lesson you can really sink your teeth into!
  • Learning to Walk
    • Although this lesson marks the end of the beginning of the vertebrate story, we still have some bones left to pick! In this last lesson we’ll look at the features of the Osteichthyes (the bony fishes) and examine the differences between two immensely successful vertebrate groups; one that conquered the water: the Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes), and one that eventually conquered the land: the Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fishes). We’ll investigate how the sarcopterygians gave rise to the tetrapods, meet our very first tetrapod ancestors like Acanthostega, and introduce the features that were essential in making the leap from water to land. Along the way we’ll meet some living fossils, see some incredible evolutionary adaptations, and learn about our earliest terrestrial origins – it’s time to step up and finish the tale of ‘Early Vertebrate Evolution’!

Taught by

Alison Murray, Ph.D


5.0 rating, based on 30 Class Central reviews

4.8 rating at Coursera based on 1112 ratings

Start your review of Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution

  • It was interesting seeing how evolution took place over millions of years, they had great visuals in the videos. I liked how the readings went along with the videos so it works for different styles of learning.
  • Anonymous
    Extremely clear. Graphics and course material were excellent. Presenter was clear and engaging. Actually enjoyed the complex history of early vertebrates.
  • Anonymous
    I took the course for personal interest, and I expected it to be both informative and entertaining. And it certainly was that way! The presenter is very charismatic, the explanations are thorough and accompanied by illustrative material and quizzes.…
  • Jaime Sevilla
    Great course, learned a lot, not an easy field to study since there's a lot of information and terminology to assimilate in a relatively short time specially if this is not your field of knoledge. Thanks to U Alberta team for the effort of sharing these amazing couses which enriches our thirst for learning!
  • Anonymous
    Very interesting updated and easy to follow even if all concepts are very well and deeply explained the video graphics and interactive tools are very useful the tree of life is great
  • Anonymous
    Great course, learned a lot and it was easy to understand even though my background is in genetics and molecular biology. The enthusiasm of the presenter is contagious. I originally started to take Dino 101 but someone in the forums recommended this course so I thought I better go back and complete it first. Was not disappointed and will definitely be taking the rest of the palaeontology courses.
  • Profile image for John Van Deusen
    John Van Deusen
    The material is heavy on historical Latin-derived taxonomy, which must be memorized in order to follow the presentation, which admittedly is also prerequisite to accessing the literature of the field. I would prefer a phylogenetic tree diagram based upon function.

    The course didn't stray far from the fossil record, but because it is so incomplete, a little more speculation might be justified.

    Actually, I felt let down when the discussion of tetrapods just stopped. One line leading to amphibians was pretty-well established, but I was wanting to know if some other line of descent might have included lungfish, possibly leading to mammals.
  • Anonymous
    Took this class as a 1 credit science at U of A because the paleo team rocks! I am a cell bio student but love this field way more. Highly recommend for an alternative look at palaeontology that is not all “dinosaurs”
  • As usual, University of Alberta outdone themselves. This was the last course in the series I have taken, and I'm sad the story is over. I hope the stagnation is only temporary, and I'm really looking forward to the possibility of new courses. The whole paleontology series - along with its predecessor Dino 101 - is a masterpiece. A huge recommendation.
  • Godwin Atane
    Wow! This is such an informative course. The instructor was just too good. I have really learnt a lot. I actually got more than I expected. Thank you University of Alberta.
  • Anonymous
    This course while short, was in fact a very interesting look into our early veterbrate ancestors, I enjoyed the course thoroughly and found it to be really engaging.
  • Anonymous
    It's a fantastic course to understand the early vertebrate evolution. The material is very comprehensive and the videos helped to understand very well.
  • Anonymous
    very good course. It is very helpful to understand the old life as fish, and a good way to understand nowadays living creatures.
  • Profile image for Laura Alonso
    Laura Alonso
    I really liked this course. It's very visual and I love that way it's explained. Easy to understand and follow.
  • Very interesting and presented in a way to make the subject memorable. The videos and reading bought the information into focus. I would love to take it again.
  • Anonymous
    I’m a retired biomedical researcher who loves expanding my knowledge of biology. This course was wonderful! The instructor is clear and enthusiastic. The visuals are appealing and quite beautiful . The terminology can be a bit daunting, but I learned a lot and will take more of these courses. I love telling my friends we evolved from sea squirts. Well done, U Alberta!
  • Anonymous
    This course was really benefitial and rich in interesting and important information concerning the early forms of vertebrate life..The sequence of events is cleverly explained in a logical chronological order as well as satisfying explanations and analysis..a lot of interactive tools too that were very useful
  • Anonymous
    This course was really benefitial and rich in interesting and important information concerning the early forms of vertebrate life..The sequence of events is cleverly explained in a logical chronological order as well as satisfying explanations and analysis..a lot of interactive tools too that were very useful
  • Anonymous
    As a foreigner, it was a bit hard to accumulate and remember technical terms used in the course, but overall the course was educational and fun. Course notes were lots, but they helped. I liked the videos too.
  • Anonymous
    This was a great, fun and illuminating course. It was my follow-up to Dino 101, and catapulted me WAY back in time, to the formation of...spines! So many truly weird creatures and strange environments... The presenter, W. Scott Persons is great - re…

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