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Unit information: Palaeontology and Evolution Research Project in 2020/21

Unit name Palaeontology and Evolution Research Project
Unit code EASC30073
Credit points 30
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. Cunningham
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


The unit aims to introduce students to:

  • Phylogenetics using parsimony as an easy to understand, exemplar, method.
  • Modern phylogenetic methods: (A) Maximum Likelihood; (B) Bayesian Analysis
  • Modern dating methods to derive evolutionary timescales integrating fossils and genomic data (Molecular clocks).
  • Supercomputing and the UNIX environment.
  • Research design and implementation.

In the first five weeks of the unit students will gain a general understanding of modern methods in macroevolutionary analysis through a series of lectures covering phylogenetic reconstruction, inference of divergence time and the comparative method. Practicals in these weeks will include how to use supercomputers (using a UNIX/LINUX shell interface) and how to use an array of standard software for data analysis (e.g. PAUP MrBayes Phylobayes).

Students will then meet with the instructor to agree a research topic.

Students will undertake an independent research project using publicly available data from Morphobank or GenBank, grounded on the practical and theoretical knowledge they accumulated in lectures and practicals. Students will research the agreed topic independently, obtain relevant publicly available data, and complete a series of appropriate analyses to test specific evolutionary hypotheses, as previously agreed with the instructor.

At a second supervisory meeting (drop-in session) students will present a bulleted point document describing the project write-up plan. Completion of the project will culminate in an oral presentation and a report of the project results in the style of a short scientific paper at the end of the unit.

Intended learning outcomes

Students will:

  • be able to use a range of phylogenetic tree-finding methods - parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian analysis
  • be able to analyse morphological and molecular data to determine the evolutionary relationships of living and extinct organisms
  • be able to use appropriate software (e.g. Paup, MrBayes) to test the veracity of phylogenetic hypotheses
  • understand morphological character coding and how to use it to discover phylogenetic patterns in the tree of life
  • be able to use modern dating techniques combining fossil and genomic information.
  • be able to use molecular phylogenetics/phylogenomics methods
  • understand and be able to implement combined (total evidence) analyses of molecular and morphological data – including fossils
  • have transferable skills that are of use outside palaeontology (A) working with supercomputers in a Unix environment, (B) using statistical software, (C) developing a research plan and executing it.

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials and, if subsequently possible, synchronous face-to-face lectures
  • synchronous office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative activities and exercises
  • guided, structured reading
  • practical work in the laboratory
  • independent research

Students who either begin or continue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete laboratory or field work, or alternative activities, in person, either during the academic year 2020/21 or subsequently, in order to meet the intended learning outcomes for the unit, prepare them for subsequent units or to satisfy accreditation requirements.

Assessment Details

100% Coursework comprising:

10-minute presentation on students' research findings (20%)

Coursework comprises a written report of the project undertaken (2500 words; one figure with panels allowed) (80%)

Reading and References


  • Nascimento et al. (2017) A biologist’s guide to Bayesian phylogenetic analysis. Nat Ecol Evol. 1(10):1446-1454
  • Dos Reis et al. (2016) Bayesian molecular clock dating of species divergences in the genomics era. Nat Rev Genet 17(2): 71-80.

Independent reading of the broad literature to select a topic for the project is essential.

Further Reading:

  • Felsenstein J (2004) Inferring phylogenies. Sinauer Associates, Inc. Sunderland, Massachusetts