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Online Course

Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution

University of Alberta via Coursera

Found in Science Courses
  • Provider Coursera
  • Cost Free Online Course (Audit)
  • Session Upcoming
  • Language English
  • Certificate Paid Certificate Available
  • Duration 4 weeks long
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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

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Reviews for Coursera's Paleontology: Early Vertebrate Evolution Based on 6 reviews

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Theresa W
by Theresa completed this course, spending 6 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.
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.
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Anonymous completed this course.
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. All in all, I think the course does a very good job introducing beginners into the topic of early vertebrate evolution and all topic related to it - geological condition of fossilization, comparing ancient organisms with modern animals, tracking the emergence of various adaptations like gills and jaws from ancient parts of the primitive animals.
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Anonymous completed this course.
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 - really animated and likable :) I'm glad he is still with me in "Ancient Marine Reptiles", which I have just started.

I have no background in biology or physiology or any of those sciences. Dino 101 was a good place to start. This course was a little more difficult (more scientific terms), but I plugged on through, and got a 100% grade.

I ain't no spring chicken, so this is great stuff to keep my mind active. And auditing it (free!) is a safe and fun way to do it, if you are limited in funds, but want to keep learning.

So, I say, "DO IT"!
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Kristina Š
by Kristina completed this course and found the course difficulty to be medium.
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.

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Anonymous completed this course.
This was fun, entertaining and education! It didn't take much time to learn the terms he used. The teacher is enthusiastic and helpful! Will definitely take more of their courses!
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Anonymous completed this course.
An excellent course, like all of the Paleontology courses from Alberta. Well presented and explained, enthusiastic presenter and good visuals.
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