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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.

Taught by

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

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5.0 rating, based on 217 reviews

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!
  • 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.
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    I think everyone should be made do this course, then perhaps there might be a chance of stopping the 6th extinction! The course is a mix of videos and text, and course work feels fresh and relevant. The presenter is excellent, being both interesting and...
  • Pat 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.
  • 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
    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
    The course was good and I do feel like we are but a blip in the history of the planet (dinosaurs for 150 my). I am a retired engineer and academic who enjoys learning and found the course was presented at a very good level. I do not understand why Anusuya...
  • Anonymous
    This course is an excellent history of life on Earth and a glimpse into the future biosphere. Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan discusses interesting and thought provoking topics about past mass extinctions with experts in their fields. The interviews and articles are clear and the contributors passion for their work shines through. The current loss of biodiversity is extremely concerning but Prof Anusuya and her colleagues also show examples of what can be done to curb this by individuals and globally. The interesting extra material provided added clarity and was helpful. It was great to see a diverse range of contributors to this course. Prof Anusuya herself is inspiring. Thank you, I learned a great deal.
  • 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
    This course contains required information for the continued life on and of this planet, relevant to all who live here.

    It presents the history of life on this Earth and how it works, the mechanisms that have evolved to nurture life - soil, water, air, oceans, nourishment, chemicals etc. Life has arrived at the present moment through lots of ups and downs, creations and extinctions. It is a fascinating story and journey and this course tells it in an entertaining and understandable way, using interviews with experts, useful charts and diagrams, all brought together by the friendly professor, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan.

    You will want to help save this planet from the brink!

    I recommend it.
  • Anonymous
    Very well presented course, with excellent videos presented by a variety of specialists. The unique fossil remains in South Africa, as well as the diverse ecosystems in the region, have allowed UCT to share local studies with a world wide audience, at a time when our planet is reaching a tipping point, with regard to the impact of humanity on climate change. Better understanding on how human stewardship of the natural world can help reduce our impact on the planet is vital for our children's future . This course goes some way to educating people about what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future.
  • Claire Loveday
    Take this course! It’s fascinating, very well presented and you feel looked after as a student (perhaps an odd thing to say about an online course, but it’s true). Every video or interview is fascinating, the illustrations are great, and a wealth of extra resources has been added to the mix. It’s clear that a lot of time has gone into making this course. I also liked the lead educator’s warmth and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Plus I now know words like therapsid.
  • Julia Tester
    This is a really excellent course. It is engaging, informative and interactive. I am thoroughly enjoying it, and almost at the end. I hope for a follow on. I have refreshed so much previously gained information that is now put so succinctly and well and have also learned a lot of new and important facts. The contributors are very knowledgable and easily understood and the opportunity to interact with other learners is a real bonus.
  • Anonymous
    Great course! Warmly recommended. The course is highly enjoyable and understandable for a non-scientist like me. I learned a lot about the past 5 extinctions events (all, or almost all new to me) and the looming 6th one. I feel empowered in that, since the latter is human made, we (you and me) can do something about it. It's not all doom and gloom. So yes, please take this course. I am sure you will enjoy it as well.
  • Anonymous
    This course is carefully structured to provide a comprehensive background to our thinking and actions around possible prevention of a sixth extinction. Anusuya is an excellent presenter and her interviews are thoughtfully planned to enable concise descriptions, which help understanding of the complexity of the issues challenging our future, all based on past and current research.
  • 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
    An excellent well presented, informative, thought provoking course. I knew little of mass extinctions beforehand, but now feel much better able to view the future in the light of what can be learnt from the past. I would argue this course could/should form part of every schools curriculum, worldwide. There will be plenty past school age who would benefit too!

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