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Extinctions: Past and Present

University of Cape Town via FutureLearn


Explore the five mass extinctions of the past

At present, biodiversity is facing a crisis, with the prospect of a sixth extinction event today.

On this course, you’ll explore how life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events in the distant 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.

Taught by

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

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5.0 rating, based on 201 reviews

Start your review of Extinctions: Past and Present

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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

    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

    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.
  • 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

    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...
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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 move...
  • Jean Reeve completed this course.

    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 time....
  • Colin Orr Burns

    Colin Orr Burns completed this course, spending 5 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    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 point...
  • Sadie Hirst completed this course, spending 3 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    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

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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

    Anonymous completed this course.

    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

    Anonymous completed this course.

    I'm only a partially completed because I haven't taken 2 of the quizzes because I chose not to upgrade. That aside, the course has been an excellent introduction to the topic of the Six Extinctions with a lot of useful resources supplied by the course organisers and of course by the students themselves. Without the students contributions in the discussions and recommendations, the course would still be very complete, with the students addition, it became hugely entertaining and enlightening. My congratulations go to all who helped make this course so interesting and worthwhile digging into each week.
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    Having completed a number of MOOCs across a range of subjects, from Roman Britain to research in healthcare, I can confidently say this course has been the best. It is loaded with information about extinctions and their impact on our planet, both in the distant past and the future. It is wonderfully presented with a mixture of videos and diagrams. The reading material and external links are informative and relevant - I would urge everyone to view the video of how wolves changed rivers - fantastic stuff. All participants are experts in their field and well worth hearing.
    I cannot recommend this course enough.
  • Millie B.

    Millie B. completed this course, spending 2 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    I studied some of this when I was at university, but even so I think it would be a great course for beginners. It gives you a short overview of what happened at each of the mass extinctions in Earth’s history, explaining why they happened (if we know!), and what the consequences were for life on Earth. The final week looked at the future of life on Earth and the current mass extinction (“The sixth extinction”) and was my personal favourite, as this is my field of interest.
  • Vivienne Ballard

    Vivienne Ballard completed this course.

    This course is outstanding. Lectures, discussions with experts from various disciplines, additional materials and links explain a complex topic clearly, and give you the opportunity to go into greater depth if you want. As you would expect from a course based in Cape Town there is heavy emphasis on African fieldwork and studies, but for me, this added to the enjoyment. I just wish I was 40 years younger and could go and study for myself!

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