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University of Cape Town

Extinctions: Past and Present

University of Cape Town via FutureLearn

This course may be unavailable.


This free online course explores how life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events in the distant past. At present, biodiversity is facing a crisis, with the prospect of a sixth extinction event today.

Explore the five mass extinctions of the past

Each week there are discussions with scientists about how their research informs us about the biodiversity of our planet including the very first life forms; fish and tetrapod diversification; the radiation of reptiles and dinosaurs; and the rise of mammals.

We focus on the five previous mass extinction events that have shaped the biodiversity of our planet. The fossil record reveals evidence of species that went extinct during these mass extinctions and the new opportunities created for the surviving biota to diversify.

The threat of a “sixth extinction” today

Turning to the present and the anthropocene period, we look at how human behaviour is now beginning to impact the Earth’s ecosystems.

We consider the threat of the so-called ‘sixth extinction’, finding out how our actions are reducing biodiversity and threatening the survival of many species.

Learn with one of the world’s leading paleontologists

‘Extinctions: Past and Present’ is created by the University of Cape Town, and filmed on location at South Africa’s Iziko Museum, West Coast Fossil Park, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, and the Table Mountain National Park.

You will learn with Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan – an acclaimed paleobiologist, author of a range of academic and children’s books on fossils, and former South African Woman of the Year. In 2013 she was awarded The World Academy of Science’s Sub-Saharan Prize for the Public Understanding and Popularization of Science.

The course is suitable for anyone with an interest in science or environmental issues. No previous experience is required. While scientific names are used, to for example identify extinct life forms, knowing these is not required to follow the course. We do offer glossaries and explain terms as we go along so you will be able to follow the themes of the course.


  • Beginnings of life on earth
    • About extinctions: past and present
    • What we know from the fossil record
    • From simple to complex
    • Past and present
  • Life in the marine realm, and early ecosystems on land
    • What we know
    • Devonian times
    • Past and present
  • The biggest mass extinction event
    • What we know of the largest mass extinction
    • Recovery following the destruction
    • What we've learnt
    • Test step
  • Most recent extinction events
    • What we know
    • From dinosaurs to mammals
    • Past and present
  • Possible sixth extinction
    • What we know of current threats
    • Evidence from researchers
    • Past and present
    • Test step

Taught by

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan


5.0 rating, based on 235 Class Central reviews

4.8 rating at FutureLearn based on 288 ratings

Start your review of Extinctions: Past and Present

  • Robert S Williams-
    Extinctions Past and Present is a top notch course given by top notch experts. The course instructors will capture your interest from day one. I have been eager to see “what’s next” in every section.
    “Extinctions” has rekindled my interest in prehistory and relates those events to the present day environment. Cape Town University has crafted this course in a way that uplifts and empowers students for stewardship of today’s world.
    Don’t miss this spectacular class!
  • An excellent course. Many people know about the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that ended the dinosaurs' dominance, but fewer have heard of the four other earlier mass extinctions. Plenty of information presented by Dr Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan and a range of guest presenters. It provides evidence of a possible sixth extinction that is starting to happen right now and ends on a positive note by explaining how we can prevent it.
  • Raashika Adam
    An excellent and highly informative course detailing the five mass extinctions, with reference to bacterial, fossilized faunal and floral species. Additional material pertaining to journal articles and other reputable references have also been included for those who wish to learn more, with an added bonus of video transcripts of interviews with various biologists and conservationists. This course provides the learner an opportunity to contribute to various discussions, including our current crisis, climate change. In conclusion, 'Extinctions: Past and Present' has been educational and fun, covering all areas within the subject range. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • My first course on FutureLearn. Definitely an interesting one. You learn an impressive amount in the breadth of topics but don't really go much in depth to any one topic. Read the comments!
  • An excellent course. I have studied various aspects of past extinctions in other courses but the information in this course was mostly new to me. I now have a better and more detailed understanding of the subject. The lectures were all interesting and well presented, I enjoyed hearing from scientists who are presently involved in this field of study. Well done Cape Town and I will look for more of your courses.
  • Anonymous
    This has been a most interesting and instructive course - one of the best I've ever done, and I'm a FutureLearn addict.

    The material has been well chosen and warmly presented by our enthusiastic and engaging lead educator and her contributors.

    I'm going to have to go back through and print a lot of it for future reference.

    I came to the subject somewhat pessimistic and leave better informed - and perhaps more optimistic.
    Many thanks indeed, Prof Anusuya
  • Anonymous
    What a valuable, interesting and stimulating course! I loved all the thought-provoking discussions on the chat board and thoroughly enjoyed each well-presented talk and the associated material. Great kudos in particular to our course lecturer Prof Anusuya, and to the very informative guest lecturers; to Germán and Janet for help and encouragement and to the busy production team. This is a course that gives rise to much thought. Very well-worth doing!
  • Anonymous
    A well thought out, brilliantly presented course by the experts who enthused on their topics. All were positive that we humans could prevent the 6th extinction and gave us practical things we could do. Excellent photographs, graphics and charts and nice clear explanations which this non-scientist found easy to follow.
    Highly recommended.
  • Anonymous
    Thank you very much Professor Anusuya, your colleagues, University of Cape Town and FutureLearn. Thank also to my fellow students. I really enjoyed this interesting and informative course. It has taught me a lot about the distant past whilst also focussing my mind on big issues for the present and future of our species and life on earth.
  • I have taken many courses over the lifetime of futurelearn. Many have centred on the environment and the changes we are facing. This course has been by far the most informative and hopeful. The course leaderAnusuya Chinsamy-Turan from the University…
  • Anonymous
    What a wonderful MOOC! I have taken many MOOCs to date and this has certainly been one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking. Despite being new to the subject I found myself being drawn into the whole idea of extinctions, past, present and…
  • Anonymous
    This is a very enjoyable and informative course. The presenters - particularly the lead presenters - are all very personable and enthusiastic, and the material is presented in bite sized chunks to make it easier to learn about each element and then…
  • Jean Reeve
    I have just finished the course ‘Extinctions’ which gives a concise history of the biology of Earth and of the 5 major extinctions which, in the past, wiped out a large percentage of the species of plants and animals which inhabited Earth at the tim…
  • Colin Orr Burns
    This is a fascinating topic, very well presented, and one of huge importance for all of us, for the whole human race, the planet and everything on it. We need to learn that species can die out, that climate change can have huge impacts. At one poin…
  • Anonymous
    Thankyou, Anusya Chinsamy-Turan. An extremely interesting, well supported, easily understood programme of talks, interviews, videos and lectures, with a plethora of additional references and information to consolidate the course and inform all stude…
  • The course was taken with Future Learn. The course host - Anusuya, made a very serious subject engaging, enlightening and accessible. I have no prior academic learning in this area at all and although there are scientific terms, they are explained and there is a glossary too. There was excellent learner participation and contributions from Anusuya and clearly comments were being read and help given when needed. I learnt a lot from fellow learners too, who were much more knowledgeable than myself. I have lots of material to go back to, which I have bookmarked for further reading. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who has an interest in our earth's history.
  • Anonymous
    Thank-you so much to Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, her team, and the excellent guest speakers for a thoroughly enjoyable course. I have learned so much more than I thought I would (Dinosaurs and Comets) when I applied for this MOOC . The course is so well structured and presented. The videos, research material and interview discussions have all been absorbing.
    I also found the book "Fossils for Africa" a very useful aid to understanding parts of the course, ie. extinction words and terminology, that I initially struggled with. It is obvious that an awful lot of work has gone into this course to make it as good as it is. Along with "Gravity, Big Bang to Black Holes", one of the best courses I have done. Thank-you once again.
  • Anonymous
    I enjoyed this course not only for the content but for the camaraderie of the students participating. The content of Extinctions if you do not have some geological knowledge can be difficult to follow. Geologic time whilst a guide was provided several students were 'lost' when lessons skipped geologic eras. For me I have a geological background so was able to understand and also carry out some in-depth factfinding. A lot of Latin names which several students found frustrating. For me not a lot of detail was spent on WHY there was an extinction and an asteroid was assigned to most extinctions which is very questionable. YES do take the course and be prepared to know your Geologic Time scale and fact find.
  • Anonymous
    Thank you very much to all contributors to this course. It has been very well presented, interesting, informative, illuminating and thought provoking to say the least. I think it has also been pitched at just about the right level for a general audience - not too heavy for the main part, but with the options to delve deeper if we wished. All credit to Professor Chinsamy-Turan, the University of Cape Town, and to FutureLearn for the provision of this experience, I have thoroughly enjoyed it. The Professor's enthusiastic presentation is a pleasure. Thanks again, I can thoroughly recommend the course to anyone thinking of dipping a toe into prehistoric waters!
  • Anonymous
    I found this course extremely enlightening, broadening my knowledge of a subject i knew something about. I found it valuable listening to all the guest speakers about their work. It gave me a sense of hope, yet concern that these scientists are not being listened to.
    Education is the key to me. Not so much for the leaders but for the populous. We are the only ones who can influence the politicians and drive the change through. Life is not going the be the same for us all in future, in the same way that has happened 5 times already on our planet.

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