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Extinctions: Past and Present

University of Cape Town via FutureLearn


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 234 Class Central reviews

4.8 rating at FutureLearn based on 282 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!
  • Pat Bowden completed this course, spending 3 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.

    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.
  • 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!
  • Raashika Adam

    Raashika Adam completed this course.

    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.
  • 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 students...
  • 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.
  • Sally Chapman completed this course, spending 5 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    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

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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
    This is a wonderful, informative and thought-provoking course. It gives a succinct overview of life on earth and the formation of the continents as we know them today in an accessible format. Each session is full of information and supported by useful extra reading material and, importantly, web sites. Overall a brilliant course, thank you so much.
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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
    Really very interesting and it was great to look at dinosaurs again. I would definitely recommend it and I have become more interested in fossils. Lets hope that we don't become extinct
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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.
  • Caren Kalman
    A remarkable course taught by Prof. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan from the University of Cape Town in conjunction with guest experts in many fields; paleontology, biology, ecology, marine science, and avian science. You will learn about the five past mass extinctions on the planet, the fossil record, the causes of the extinctions, and what the present and future sixth extinction holds if we humans do not act.

    I would recommend this course to all learners interested in science and facts who are concerned about the environment, climate change, and what homo sapiens, the dominant species on Earth, should do to save ourselves from a sixth extinction.
  • Anonymous
    This is the second course I have taken on future learn. The course requires a background in science and uses an extensive vocabulary but a list is provided. That and the charts provided at the beginning are worth printing off for reference during the...
  • Anonymous
    This would be one of my favourite courses of the many I have completed since our first lockdown in Melbourne, Australia in 3/20. I chose it because it's a subject about which I knew very little, and because I was intrigued by the possibility of a 6th...
  • Anonymous
    This has been an excellent course. It is a real tribute to Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan that we have covered millions of years of history in such an interesting and compelling way. Her own delivery was clear and accessible, the course materials have...
  • Teresa Lofgren-forrest completed this course.

    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 of...
  • Anonymous
    The course was absolutely fascinating. I knew nothing about extinctions, apart from the rather schoolgirl knowledge I had acquired. The lecturers, professors,, were so knowledgeable and imparted what they knew so well, and one could almost visualise...
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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 future...

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